By Michele S. Byers
With a new governor taking office in January, New Jersey has a great opportunity to regain its national environmental leadership role.
On the campaign trail, Governor-elect Phil Murphy pledged strong support for the environment, a “green economy” boosted by clean energy jobs, and a renewed emphasis on climate change.
The time to act is now. The Governor-elect will inherit a small but diverse state with both the nation’s highest population density and the highest number of Superfund sites. Ensuring clean water, clean air, healthy communities, parks and open spaces, fresh locally grown food, and protected wild places and rare species – all in the face of budget limitations and climate change – is a big challenge.
One hoped-for move will be New Jersey rejoining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a collaborative of northeastern states working to reduce carbon emissions. New Jersey was pulled out of RGGI in 2011.
Governor-elect Murphy has pledged to update the state’s energy master plan to set New Jersey on a path to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. To achieve this goal, New Jersey must encourage the continued growth of solar energy and tap its vast potential to generate electricity from appropriately sited offshore wind.
More top priorities for the Governor-elect:
• Water infrastructure repairs and restoration – New Jersey must modernize and repair its aging water pipes, essential systems that deliver drinking water, remove and treat sewage, and take storm water off streets. The problem is especially serious in 21 of the state’s oldest cities, where “combined” sewage and storm water systems are prone to backups and overflows, putting public health in jeopardy. This critical undertaking will also produce lots of jobs.
• Energy and pipelines – New Jersey is awash in proposals for new gas and oil pipelines. These massive linear developments pose serious risks to our water and air, and to the health and safety of communities. Pipelines increase the state’s reliance on the fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, and would undermine the state’s ability to achieve 100 percent clean energy, a goal set by Governor-elect Murphy. Our new governor should use the state’s full authority under the Clean Water Act when reviewing proposed pipelines – and reject projects that do not meet its standards.
• The New Jersey coast – Superstorm Sandy’s legacy made it clear that New Jersey must prepare for future storms and rising seas along the New Jersey shore and Delaware Bay coastline. An expected sea level rise of between 1 and 2.8 feet by 2050 will amplify the impact of storms and potentially engulf tens of thousands of homes and businesses. Decades ago, Gov. Thomas Kean called for a plan to oversee coastal development. This should be a top priority for the new governor.
• Reinvigorate the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection – In recent years the DEP has lost funding and staffing is below 1990 levels, while environmental protection issues have become more complex. The DEP’s mission is to protect our water, air, environment, health and public lands, but its capacity to do so, as well as staff morale, have been compromised. Important regulations to protect resources have been weakened. Our new governor should make wholehearted implementation of DEP’s critical mission a top priority, starting with appointing a new commissioner with the commitment essential to make this happen.
• Special places that protect our water: the Highlands and the Pinelands – Our state’s flagship regional planning laws and plans need support. Governor-elect Murphy can make an enormous contribution to water quality, water supply, open space preservation and quality of life by ensuring that all new appointees to the Pinelands Commission and the Highlands Council support and will defend the missions of these superb planning agencies.
• Open space – New Jersey’s open space and farmland protection programs have enjoyed tremendous popularity and success in recent decades, but much more land needs protection. And the state and other agencies must do more to protect New Jersey’s outstanding natural heritage, including our forests and “wildlands” and the rare plants and animals that inhabit them.
Rare species are declining and critical ecosystems are disappearing due to human-caused stresses, climate change, sprawl, forest fragmentation, lack of comprehensive management planning, overabundant deer, invasive species, rising sea level, storms, erosion, and diversions of parkland to non-park uses.
Illegal off-road vehicle use on public lands is rampant and is damaging key habitats.
Programs to protect rare animals, plants and habitats on public lands need bolstering.
Finally, it is equally important to focus on urban parks to ensure that all residents of New Jersey can walk out their front door and access safe parks and trails.
Together, these priorities make for a tall order, but they are essential to ensure a healthy future for both our environment and our economy.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.