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Lawmakers OK bills to ban new power plants, improve electric grid, divest from fuel companies

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Lawmakers OK bills to ban new power plants, improve electric grid, divest from fuel companies

Mar 04, 2024 | 3:40 pm ET
By Dana DiFilippo
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Lawmakers OK bills to ban new power plants, improve electric grid, divest from fuel companies
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A Senate panel advanced several bills on March 4, 2024, intended to facilitate New Jersey's green energy goals, including a bill that would require electric utilities to submit infrastructure improvement plans to the state. (Amalie Hindash for New Jersey Monitor)

A Senate panel advanced a trio of measures Monday intended to reduce New Jersey’s reliance on fossil fuels and facilitate the state’s shift to electricity and renewable energies.

The Senate’s environment and energy committee advanced bills, largely along party lines, that would: amend the state constitution, pending voter approval, to bar the construction of new fossil fuel power plants; require the state to divest from the 200 largest publicly traded fossil fuel companies; and direct electric public utilities to submit infrastructure improvement plans to the state Board of Public Utilities and implement them.

All three measures prompted some pushback from advocates for various reasons, but Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the board’s chair, said the worsening impacts of climate change require immediate action.

“We’re not moving fast enough. We really aren’t. The end of the world is coming, for those people who haven’t noticed. Go to Texas, and you can see the state burning down,” Smith said.

While environmentalists echoed that sentiment, industry advocates spoke out against the bills, saying they’re premature as the state remains in the early stages of its transition to 100% green energy by 2035.

Ray Cantor, representing the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, reminded lawmakers that the state still lacks the infrastructure needed to achieve that goal and will need to rely on fossil fuels and power plants until it does.

“This committee should not be passing a constitutional amendment to lock this in place so that if we do need this energy in the future, it’s not going to be available to us,” Cantor said. “It’s just not sound energy policy.”

Divestment

Ben Dziobek heads the Climate Revolution Action Network, a youth-led group focused on fighting climate change.

He testified in support of the divestment bill, which would bar the state from investing state retirement funds in the 200 largest fossil fuel companies, require divestment from coal companies within two years and other fossil fuel companies within one year, and order the State Investment Council to report on divestment efforts 120 days after the bill becomes law and annually thereafter.

“Because of the State Investment Council and consistent inaction by the Legislature, New Jersey pensioners are paying for the destruction of the planet,” Dziobek said. “We’re funding fossil fuel companies … so they can extract, frack, burn, and pillage this planet. New Jersey is behind the ball on divestment.”

New Jersey has sued ExxonMobil, Chevron, and other oil companies, accusing them of worsening the climate change that caused catastrophic, deadly storms and flooding in New Jersey in recent years, Dziobek added.

“At the same time, the state’s pension fund is invested in them. Where’s the consistency from the Garden State?” he said.

Power plants

The Senate resolution that would constitutionally bar new power plants drew opposition from a surprising group — environmentalists.

They argued it doesn’t go far enough. The committee considered amendments Monday to exempt “peaking power plants,” which are those activated intermittently during periods of peak demand, as well as smaller emergency generators homeowners and small business owners use during outages.

“The only projects that would be impacted are new gas plants of a very large nature … clearly economics currently dictate that those aren’t going to be happening. So it’s not going to change the status quo,” said David Pringle, who testified on behalf of Empower NJ.

Pringle also warned lawmakers voters might reject the constitutional amendment because environmentalists, as grassroots groups with shoestring budgets, can’t compete with the pricey public campaigns fossil fuel companies will likely launch to defeat a referendum.

“Similar measures have been put on the ballot in other states like California, and tens of millions of dollars by the fossil fuel industry have been spent. And while we don’t think we need this bill, we certainly can’t afford for it to be defeated on the ballot,” he said.

Electric grid

The state advocate for New Jersey ratepayers told legislators he has concerns about the bill intended to accelerate upgrades to the state’s electrical grid.

Brian Lipman, director of the state Division of Rate Counsel, warned lawmakers the bill doesn’t give the Board of Public Utilities enough time or discretion to properly vet the improvement plans utilities would have to submit.

Utilities would have up to 90 days, from the day the bill becomes law, to submit a plan, while the board has 120 days from the law’s enactment to approve such plans. For utilities that take the full 90 days, that means the board would have just 30 days to review plans, which can be hundreds of pages.

“The bill’s tight timelines and lack of agency oversight would very likely cause ratepayers to grossly overpay for imprudent and unreasonable costs,” Lipman told committee members.

Smith assured hearing spectators he, as a prime sponsor of all three bills, would consider advocates’ concerns with other bill sponsors for possible further amendments. None of the measures has an Assembly companion.