Lame Duck Yields Environmental Winners And Losers

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

For most people, January is quiet. We recover from the holiday whirlwind, pay off credit cards (at least partially!) and resolve to eat less and exercise more.

But in even-numbered years like 2012, the new year is hardly quiet for the New Jersey Legislature. Rather, it’s the tail end of the “lame duck” session, the two-month period between the November election and the expiration of legislative terms.

During lame duck, the Legislature enters a mad flurry of activity. Dozens of bills are proposed, passed, defeated or ignored as the clock ticks down. At the end, the governor has about a week to accept or reject the bills passed by the Legislature.

As the curtains went down on the 214th Legislature and Governor Chris Christie got his chance to “yea or nay,” a number of things happened that will impact the environment of this state we’re in … a mixed bag of good news, bad news and wait-and-see.

First, some good news. Governor Christie is to be applauded for his conditional veto of a bill that would have allowed large, commercial-scale wind turbines on preserved farms in the Garden State. This was a wise move because allowing commercial uses would undermine the public’s substantial investment in farmland preservation and the integrity of the farmland preservation program.

In another positive move, the Legislature passed and Governor Christie signed Senator Bob Gordon’s so-called “Blue Acres” bill, which clarifies that towns can spend open space funds on flood-prone properties and turn them into parks. Done right, this is a win-win for all, as it removes structures from flood plains – where development should not have been allowed in the first place. When it comes to preventing devastating floods, it’s better to work with Mother Nature than against her!

Sometimes, what doesn’t get passed is just as important. That’s the case with a bill which would have allowed commercial logging in state forests, parks and wildlife management areas without adequate safeguards. After a month of heated debate – and public outcry – the Assembly opted not to post the bill for a vote. However, this bill has already been reintroduced in the Senate in the new legislative session.

Now, some of the bad news.

The Legislature passed, and Governor Christie signed, a bill widely derided as the “Dirty Water Bill.” This legislation is a giveaway to developers, putting 300,000 acres of New Jersey’s most environmentally sensitive land at risk of development by allowing for continued sewer service extensions. This is a bill that should have been vetoed to protect our state’s clean water!

In another lame duck disappointment, a move to override Governor Christie’s conditional veto of an anti-fracking bill did not gain traction. By an overwhelming vote last summer, the Legislature passed a bill prohibiting the practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in New Jersey. The Governor conditionally vetoed it, instituting a one-year moratorium instead of a permanent ban.

As the 215th Legislature gets under way, it’s time to turn our attention to what comes next.

My hope for 2012 is that the Legislature will adopt an outright ban on fracking in New Jersey – and that Governor Christie will sign it this time – and that the Legislature will rethink and rework the bill that would establish logging on state land.

Another bill that should be rejected is the Permit Extension Act, which would extend all permits and approvals for developers at the state and local levels until December 31, 2014. If the bill is passed, it would allow projects that were approved many years ago but never built to avoid changes in environmental law, public health standards, building codes, or local zoning.

Another hope for the coming year is that the Legislature and governor will recommit to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and pass a bill clarifying the state’s required participation in RGGI. This initiative is our only tool to directly control carbon dioxide emissions from power plant smokestacks. In just three years, the program has delivered considerable benefits both to New Jersey’s environment and economy.

We also need forward thinking, robust energy conservation legislation. Given the enormous potential for saving money and natural resources from energy conservation, we can’t afford to wait any longer to take action!

For more information about conserving our state’s precious land and natural resources, visit New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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