It’s been a really bad few weeks for combating climate change in Washington D.C.
This month the U.S. Supreme Court kneecapped the ability of the U.S. EPA to regulate the fossil fuel emissions that cause global warming and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) pledged to block a last chance revival of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda that includes action items to address climate change.
That should be setting off alarm bells in Trenton, the capital of a coastal state like New Jersey that’s been hit by increasingly powerful storms that climate scientists predict will only increase in severity as the Atlantic Ocean continues to heat up and rise. Last September, Hurricane Ida killed 30 New Jersey residents unable to outrun the record setting flood waters that upended communities destroying homes and businesses.
Whether we like it or not, just like we were with COVID, we are in the crucible of a global challenge that our federal government is once again failing to address effectively.
DEATHS AND COSTS MOUNT
According to the CDC, Ida killed 91 people over nine states. doing close to $100 billion in property damage along the way. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that last year there “were 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters” with a total cost of $145 billion, making 2021 “the third most costly year on record, behind 2017 and 2005.” 2021 was the seventh year in a row that the U.S. had “ten or more than a billion dollar disaster events.”
“The total cost for the last five years (742.1 billion) is more than one-third of the disaster cost total of the last 42 years ($2.155 trillion),” according to NOAA. That averages out to close to almost $150 billion. Consider that five year look back doesn’t include Super Storm Sandy in October of 2012, that damaged 350,000 homes, destroyed tens of thousands of businesses and killed 38 in New Jersey alone.
Last September, as officials were collecting Ida flood damage estimates from Ida, NJ Spotlight’s reporting on Trenton’s response was headlined “Ida Floods Force a New Reckoning for NJ—There’s a building boom in flood zones brings more rain, damage.”
“In the days following, Shawn M. LaTourette, commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, called the storm’s impact on New Jersey ‘a new reality.’, NJ Spotlight reported. “David Rosenblatt, the state’s chief climate and flood resiliency officer, conceded we were, and are ‘unprepared.’”
Just like after Sandy, the traumatic events elicited comments from the sitting Governor resolving to learn our collective lesson from the pummeling at the hands of the natural world we’ve been altering at an accelerating pace with carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
On ABC News, Gov. Phil Murphy reverted to his ever handy sports analogy as if life was a football game. “We’ve gotta update our playbook for sure—we gotta turn it up,” he told the national news outlet.
Yet, with another hurricane season looming, several of New Jersey’s leading environmental subject matter experts say the Murphy administration response to climate change is more press releases than substance. They note that despite a recent slight bump in funding, the first in many years, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection’s budget, when accounting for inflation, has not kept pace with the increasing workload that Murphy’s ‘paper agenda’ has generated.
The state’s appropriations for the DEP’s direct state services “have been flat since 2005,” said Amy Goldsmith, the New Jersey executive director of Clean Water Action. “That’s a 40 percent cut given inflation. $250 million dollars does 40 percent less in 2022 than does in 2005.”
In terms of boots on the ground Goldsmith said the DEP has gone from “3,500 employees to 2,700 employees, as the Governor and the legislature demand more from the DEP while giving it less to work with.”
A DEP spokesman did pick up the phone and discuss InsiderNJ’s query but was not able to provide a response by press time.
“Murphy wants to talk about climate change but he doesn’t really want to do anything,” said Jeff Tittel, who recently retired after 23 years as the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “When it comes to the actual DEP personnel and budget we are half of what we were 30 years ago while the problems have gotten worse and the types of programs we need to be bigger and we are just not there to meet the challenge.”
GLASS HALF FULL
Ed Potosnack, the executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters credited Trenton with increasing DEP’s appropriation in its most recent round of budgeting. “For ten years, as long as I have been doing this we have seen flat funding at the DEP which amounts to a cut with inflation,” he said. “We are pleased to see even a slight increase at $45 million that equates to 60 more employees and that is better but there clearly is a need to have more funding and increased staffing.”
Potosnack observed that the backlog DEP permitting and rule making causes collateral damage across the state from an economic development perspective.
“I have a friend who is trying to open a daycare site that requires really stringent environmental certifications because they found a contaminant and ever month that goes by without follow through by the DEP she’s paying rent on a space she can’t occupy because of redcap that could have been shortened with more robust DEP staffing,” he said.
“DEP personnel has been cut back consistently over the last several administrations,” said Greg Remaud, Baykeeper and CEO with NY/NJ Baykeeper, a non-profit environmental advocacy group. “I don’t think we expect it to go back to its height, but we are concerned it has been consistently diminished.”
Remaud continued. “On top of that, we have recently lost a lot of important institutional knowledge with people who have been with DEP along time. There’s been a lot of turnover at the top. It’s taking longer and longer to get the rules made and we haven’t heard back on a range of important issues.”
As it turns out, the splashy landmark legislation like Gov. Murphy’s widely celebrated Environmental Justice Act, meant to environmentally safeguard communities already overburdened by toxic air generating energy plants, requires the DEP to draw up specific standards and rules to enforce the new law.
Without these small print specifics, no matter how well intentioned the ‘landmark law’ is, it will remain just a press release, according to the environmental experts InsiderNJ polled. And it’s during the behind the scenes rulemaking that the state’s lobbying interests do their most effective surreptitious work that rarely leaves any fingerprints.
THE DEP STAFF SHUFFLE
Remaud said that even when the Murphy administration and the “DEP is moving in the right direction there is a real concern that they just don’t have the capacity to do so in a timely fashion because we have experienced the exact opposite. The Environmental Justice Law is a great example, along with our successful court case supporting the public’s waterfront access, the backlog in rulemaking is where things are getting caught up. We talk to the DEP staff and they frankly tell us they are just overwhelmed and being moved from one department to another.”
He continued. “The Murphy administration has done a good job with public relations highlighting the things that are going well but we really haven’t seen movement in the more substantive part of the issues. The administration is always promoting something (environmental) but they are the lighter lifts—the easy programs.”
Elliot Ruga is the policy director for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, a community based watershed protection non-profit. Ruga says the lack of resources appears to have slowed follow through on Governor Murphy’s Executive Order 100 he signed in January of 2020 that warned that the state needed to expeditiously “integrate climate change considerations, such as sea level rise, into its regulatory and permitting programs, including but not limited to, land use permitting, water supply, stormwater and wastewater permitting and planning, air quality, and solid waste and site remediation permitting.”
“Some areas of the budget might have seen a bump but overall the ability of the DEP to fulfill its extremely critical role today is not being met by the level of financial commitment needed to provide the agency with the personnel it needs,” Ruga said during a phone interview. “They just don’t have enough rule makers and legal staff that can interpret the risk factors and the impact of the rules these laws require. They have been delaying the proposals for DEP’s land use regulations that were required by the Governor’s Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJPACT)” that was supposed to follow up on Murphy’s Executive Order 100.
Ruga concedes that some of the hold up on DEP follow through could be attributed to the pandemic “but that’s another reason the department needs additional resources. Yes, there was a pandemic hurricane IDA, and before that Sandy and Irene. Every year there is going to be another catastrophe that distracts the DEP from what they need to do.”
GOT THE FACTS RIGHT
Gov. Murphy’s Executive Order 100 cited a 2019 report “New Jersey’s Rising Seas and Changing Coastal Storms” prepared by Rutgers University for the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) that showed “that sea-level rise projections in New Jersey are more than two times the global average and that the sea level in New Jersey could rise from 2000 levels by up to 1.1 feet by 2030, 2.1 feet by 2050, and 6.3 feet by 2100, underscoring the urgent need for action to protect the State from adverse climate change impacts.”
EO 100 reiterated that the state’s Energy Master Plan (“EMP”) set “forth a strategic vision for the production, distribution, consumption, and conservation of energy” and that recognized “the need for significant investment in and support for clean energy sources necessary” to “transition away from the State’s reliance on fossil fuels that contribute to global climate change” with a “forward-thinking blueprint for the transition of the State’s energy profile to 100% clean energy sources on or before January 1, 2050.”
Jennifer Coffey is the executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC). Coffey notes that Murphy executive order committed to have his NJPACT reset of the state’s environmental regulations, that dealt with things like prohibiting development In floodplains two years from when he issued the executive order in January of 2020. “That would have been January of this year,” she wrote in an email.
As Coffey sees it, despite setbacks in Washington, the state has to move quickly on two tracks simultaneously. It must drastically reduce greenhouse gasses while continuing to insulate people from the life and death impacts of the flooding and storm damage that continues to intensify even as we try to get our arms around climate change.
CLIMATE CHANGE TAI CHI
“We have to do both things at the same time,” she said during a phone interview. “We need to protect people from the impacts that are continuing to happen and will continue to happen as well as we need to rapidly and massively reduce greenhouse gasses. Right now, if we continue with emissions the way they are, we are looking at losing all arctic ice by 2050 and that’s going to cause massive climate changes in a way that we are not going to be able to stop.”
Coffey was in attendance at a May press conference in Lambertville at the site of where Ida’s flood waters swept two houses into Swan Creek and Gov. Murphy was promoting the state’s $50 million Blue Acres Buyout Program that buys out vulnerable residential properties built in existing flood plains.
“As New Jersey continues to experience more extreme weather events, we must become proactive in our approach to protect the communities and businesses that continue to bear the brunt of flooding and damage from these storms,” said Governor Murphy. “This $50 million investment of federal Ida recovery funds in our nationally recognized Blue Acres program will allow homeowners in communities like Lambertville to facilitate market-rate purchases of properties which have experienced repetitive flood losses. Helping families relocate and turning these properties into open space will allow more flood waters to be absorbed or diverted so that we don’t see the kinds of catastrophic losses we did during Tropical Storm Ida.”
At that press conference Coffey said she thought that Murphy’s remarks seemed to suggest he understands the urgency for action.
“But I asked him about where were the rules (prohibiting construction in flood plains) because the Lambertville property was but one property while we were continuing to see the problem” of floodplain encroachment around the state actually “continuing to get worse,” Coffey recalled. “He told me I was right and that we needed the rules and I asked him ‘where are they?’ ”
In June, Coffey says the DEP held a series of meetings with environmentalists, local elected officials as well as engineers but than the ANJEC executive director said the June 15 deadline came and went.
“What we heard was that 19 different developers and organizations advocating for continued economic growth in New Jersey weighed in with the Governor’s office saying that addressing this issue was going to cause too much economic pain,” Coffey said. “The developers want to put up town homes in flood plains and run away. They are not the ones that will feel the pain and putting their families at risk.”
Coffey is not the only environmentalist worried about the gap between Gov. Murphy’s green rhetoric and action.
Back in April, EmpowerNJ, a coalition of environmental groups, issued a report warning that New Jersey would miss its goals to combat climate change if the Murphy administration didn’t stop fossil fuel projects it had already signed off on and was more proactive in implementing the rules and regulation necessary to achieve the goals.
“Murphy, a Democrat, has set a lofty target of cutting emissions 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 in New Jersey, a coastal state that has been battered by major storms in recent years,” reported Brent Johnson for NJ Advance Media. “”But the report from EmpowerNJ — which has taken Murphy’s administration to court to push for more action on climate change — estimates the Garden State’s emissions have increased by 19% from six fossil fuel projects the state has approved in the last four years.”
EmpowerNJ also warned emissions could actually “increase another 38 percent if seven pending projects are approved and completed before Murphy’s second term is up in January 2026,” the news outlet reported.
Kim Dolsky of the Don’t Gas the Meadowlands Coalition told Johnson the report showed “the enormous difference between the governor’s stated policies of reducing greenhouse gasses and the reality that we are rapidly heading in the opposite direction.”