At the meeting of the New Jersey Senate Environment and Energy Committee Monday, Senators Smith (D), Corrado (R), Greenstein (D), and Codey (D), addressed Senate Resolution 57, among other topics. Senate Resolution 57 urges the Governor and AG to pursue legal action against fossil fuel companies for damages caused by climate change.”
Among the speakers who came to speak was John Weber, Council President of Bradley Beach, offering his municipality’s full support for the resolution. Saying “It’s a no-brainer holding these company accountable” he said his town is situated against the ocean on one side with a lake on the other, saying that the town was at great danger from sea level rise. Weber said that “A billion with a ‘b’,” had been spent on beach replenishment and that Bradley Beach had “on several times” spent their own money to build dunes to protect the town.
During Super Storm Sandy the dunes saved their boardwalk but there was still a breach which flooded through to the lake area. He said that storm surge dragged in debris, raising the bottom of the lake and that dredging it would cost “tens of millions of dollars,” a fiscal challenge that is seemingly impossible to meet. “These are real examples of climate related costs our town has to incur,” the council president said, saying that the situation makes the town choose between spending money on those costs versus other municipal responsibilities. He urged the governor and attorney general to pass SR57.
Laurie Huryk, Councilwoman from Toms River, explained the incredible cost to Toms River after Sandy. Most of the Sandy damage, she said, was sustained on the bay side and barrier islands, which she said was “catastrophic” and that of the 10,500 damaged properties almost 40% if the dwellings were “substantially damaged”, or losing more than 50% of their value. Huryk said that in 2011 their ratables were $16.7B and by 2019 only they were only $15.6B, still $938M short of the ratable value of the township eight years later. She said the township had several recovery options for the lost revenue, borrowed $5M from HEMA but the federal government chose not to forgive the debts, forcing them to raise taxes. Tens of millions were borrowed in a five-year loan paid back in 2018, and $27.6M from FEMA receipts mostly went towards repaying that debt. The township also acquired $2M in grant money for their dunes, but in total, Sandy cost them $62M and $33M was un-reimbursable. She added that many individual tax payers were insufficiently insured, even with flood insurance, and some had a total loss with no reimbursement. Residents borrowed money, used up any savings they possessed, and had to live in alternate living arrangements for a long time. Federal flood insurance paid over six million dollars to Toms River properties, she said, saying that if the town were a state it would be 12th in the nation for flood insurance payments.
She said that this year would be the first year the township would expect to have increased revenues from beach income, but then the pandemic came. Other costs that have impacted residents included the raising of their homes and associated expenses, which cost homeowners between $100,000-$200,000. The municipality also had to pay for work done on parking lots, official buildings, and the boardwalk, and future damages, she said, were “inevitable.”
Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club voiced his support and said that New Jersey is highly at risk and we see the effects, in particular flooding, only getting worse. “New Jersey is one of the most vulnerable states to climate impacts in the nation. We are seeing greater rates of sea-level rise than the rest of the country and our annual temperatures are rising faster. Fourteen other cities around the country and two states are suing the fossil fuel industry to recoup damages from sea-level rise and climate impacts, but New Jersey is not. We need Governor Murphy and the Attorney General to step up and make sure polluters who contributed to climate change pay their fair share of the damages.”
Tittel said there are over 60,000 homes in severely flood prone areas and the number will rise. He also added that the NJ Highway Authority voted to spend $2B to raise the Garden State Parkway in Atlantic and Ocean counties due to chronic flooding attributable to climate change. Tittel asserted that since the late 70s, major oil companies have known about the impacts to climate and environment their operations were having. He quoted Edward Teller when he described the activity of oil companies as “suicide to another generation” in 1959. “They’ve known, they’ve lied, they’ve covered up.” Tittel urged New Jersey to join with other states and cities to hold fossil fuel companies accountable or “we will bankrupt ourselves” trying to deal and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Raymond Cantor of NJBIA opposed the resolution on the grounds that, in their opinion, climate change and those policies are not a matter for the courts but for the legislature. He warned that suits filed “will go nowhere and waste taxpayer money.” He defended the fossil fuel industry and the role of energy in society as being transformational and lifting people out of poverty like no other. Cantor said that if the answer to climate change was to stop the fossil fuel industry, then they should, but said that that was not the case, although he acknowledged that the combustion of fossil fuels is largely driving climate change. Cantor said that there should be more options in the future for energy which would include fossil fuels, and that climate change itself was complicated and not fully understood, and that enacting policy towards that end should not belong in the courts. “This bill seeks an easy solution to a complex problem,” he said, citing that courts have dismissed cases on the matter and that the attorney general would only be wasting taxpayer resources doing do.
Senator Corrado voted no, saying that while she thought the “best of intentions” were there, but that the plaintiffs would likely turn around and sue the municipalities. “Litigation is not the way to go at this point.”
Codey, Smith, and Greenstein voted yes.