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Gubernatorial candidates discuss energy and environmental issues

Westfield, NJ Library - Environment NJ sponsored forum

Westfield, NJ Library - Environment NJ sponsored forum

[Update: 9/11/09 – here’s how the Asbury Park Press and Atlantic City Press reported these issues, 2 days later, from the Statehouse:

Daggett: No gas terminals off the coast [link] 

Daggett opposes liquified natural gas posts off coast [link]

Public presses N.J. Gov. candidates on clean energy plans [link] – end update]

About 80 citizens, a handful of local officials, and two state legislators came out to discuss environmental issues with Gubernatorial candidates (or their representatives) last night in Westfield, in a forum sponsored by Environment NJ, the Highlands Coalition, and Clean Ocean Action.

There were no corporate flacks or lobbyists in sight. No one shouted or called anyone a Nazi. Citizens passionately but rationally asked informed and important questions. The candidates didn’t attack each other, pander or appeal to hate or fear, but instead discussed their ideas about public policy.

Given the political context and the in the gutter conduct of the Gubernatorial campaign thus far, the event was a huge success. Thank you Environment NJ for taking the high road, not doing the traditional shallow endorsement rag, and  instead forcing the candidates to discuss issues and to be accountable to voters.

Let’s see if the press can follow your lead, rise to the occasion, and focus on the issues instead of the horse race.

Who knows, maybe this event can catalyze a shift in the entire campaign, and the candidates will start to focus on issues, citizens will be civil, the press responsible, and the corporate special interests neutered – and we can have functional democracy instead of the spin, personal attacks, and propaganda that passes for a political campaign these days….   

Chris Daggett, Independent candidate for Governor

Chris Daggett, Independent candidate for Governor

Independent Chris Daggett

Daggett was the only candidate who showed up. At the outset, he made a biting remark that he’s been the only candidate showing up lately at lots of events. Give him credit for this. While I don’t agree with several things he said, he clearly was knowledgeable on the issues and willing to honestly engage. Daggett has received the Sierra Club’s endorsement)

Democratic Governor Corzine

Corzine sent Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), Chairman of the Assembly Environment Committee.  Shame on the Governor for not showing up to defend his record and implicitly disrespecting the forum, its sponsors, and thousands of highly concerned and motivated NJ environmental voters. This is especially shameful, given that Corzine touts his energy and global warming accomplishments as the key strength of his environmental record.

It was awkward to listen to McKeon repeatedly claim that Jon Corzine is a national leader for passage of the Global Warming Response Act; that the Regional Green House Gas Initiative (RGGI) cap and  trade program is the model for the bill now before Congress, and that the NJ Energy Master Plan’s 30% renewable energy goal is the nation’s most aggressive. If these are national level accomplishments, why can’t the Governor show up to discuss them at the only forum dedicated to energy and environment during the entire campaign? Politically, I’m dumfounded why the Governor would choose to alienate a traditionally democratic leaning environmental base constituency. Polls show he trails republican Chris Christie by around 10 points, while Independent Chris Daggett is polling at about 10%. In such a tight race with a perceived pro-environment third party candidate , why would Corzine want to bleed more environmental voters to Daggett?

Republican Chris Christie

Christie sent Richard Dovey , head of the Atlantic County Utility Authority. ACUA has done great work on wind. Rich is a technocrat with 30 years of experience in environmental management, mostly at the county and regional level. He did a great job, given how very little guidance he was given by the Christie campaign on the issues that were discussed. He was really in a tough spot.

Here’s what went down

The event began with brief overviews by each candidate. They were asked to focus on energy and global warming. They all wandered and didn’t break any real substantive new ground.

McKeon touted Corzine’s record on Global Warming Response Act goals,, RGGI, and BPU Energy Master Plan 30% renewable energy goal by 2020. He called the Governor’s leadership to get a $400 million Open Space question on this fall’s ballot a “profile in courage” and alluded to unspecified accomplishments on clean water (I assume he was NOT  referring to this or this Jeff Tittel warning letter to Commissioner Lisa Jackson, a letter Jackson ignored when rolling back stream buffer protections).

Dovey spoke about how me met Christie’s during a press event tour of the ACUA wind farm. He emphasized Christie recognition of the need for more leadership and said Christie is committed to building on and making decisions to implement the consensus goals of the Corzine  GWRA and EMP. He stressed Christie’s sense of immediacy – that the time is now to make decisions on specific projects. However, Dovey only had one brief conversation with a Christie campaign staffer on the issues and was working off of Christie’s website for the candidate’s position on energy industry issues and protecting the environment. 

Dovey didn’t mention controversial statements Christie has made attacking DEP and promising to clean house there. Shame too on Christie for not showing up to defend his views.

Daggett opened by touting his leadership as Chairman of the DEP Permit Efficiency Task Force. He outlined his collaborative approach to public policy as building consensus, working with diverse interests, and relying on the best available science. He stressed the need to be realistic (does this mean DEP should “do less with less”?), especially given NJ’s State budget crisis, and felt that the Corzine GWRA and EMP goals are unrealistically aggressive, but that he agreed with those goals as something to aim for. He claimed that renewable energy was “more expensive than fossil fuel energy”  and that we needed to consider two basic policy options: a) pointing to the fluctuations in gasoline prices, whether to impose an energy tax to address maarket price fluctuations that destabilize the investment climate for renewables and efficiency; or b) let the market continue to govern policy decisions. He said we could do a lot more on efficiency and conservation. He stressed the need for NJ to do a lot more on R&D.

He  savagely criticized NJ’s higher education policy – called it “embarrassing”,  ranked #50 in the nation, and active “disinvestment” – and talked about how lack of education investment was driving the brain drain and undermining private sector investment, innovation, and economic growth in strategic  sectors, such as high technology, pharmaceuticals, and renewable energy, especially things like electric cars.  Dagget said NJ has high population density which provides a natural comparative advantage in developing technologies like electric cars and energy storage technologies. He closed by saying “it’s time to stop the nonsense and focus on what’s best for NJ”. He was very good here.

The floor was then opened to questions from the public:

1. John Weber of Surfrider Foundation asked each candidate’s position on the planned offshore Liquified Natural Gas project, dubbed “Insanity Island”

Corzine – sees natural gas and LNG as a key fuel needed to meet energy demand and avoid disruption (at leat 5 times, McKeon used the scare tactic phrase, “in order to keep the lights on“. I call BS on this.

Christie – although familiar with a proposed Delaware Bay LNG project killed by Delaware officials (he misspoke and said NJ opposed), no position.

Daggett – claimed glut of natural gas and lots of natural gas supply in US not used to capacity, more capacity being discovered, global warming impacts of fossil fuels, national security threat to rely on foreign energy sources, could not support.

2. Sierra Club member and professor of economics at Raritan Valley CC challenged Daggett’s intro remarks about the costs of renewables.  He suggested that Daggett read the literature and analyses of the Rocky Mountain Institute that show if government subsidies  and pollution impacts of fossil fuels were considered, as well as peak pricing benefits of renewables, then the opposite is true. He also asked if candidates support the proposed 750 MW Linden coal plant that will capture and store CO2.70 miles out under the ocean.

No candidates really responded to the economic questions. McKeon relied on talking points. To his credit, Dovey showed an understanding of the history of technology scale issues and cost structures (costs decline over time), and pollution subsidies. But I think he spun by claiming that the ACUA wind farm had displaced demand for local jet fuel peak power plant. Daggett dug into a flawed position by focusing on the up front  capital costs and costs on an installed basis comparison to support his claim that renewables are higher costs than fossil fuels. This was a major gaffe.

Christie – no position on Linden

Corzine – no comment – CCS and Linden project under study

Daggett – oppose Linden – CCS is untested technology

3. Julia Sommers of the Highlands Coalition asked the candidates position on the extremely controversial Susquehanna/PSEG Roseland power line

Christie – no position

Daggett – he dodged the issue, claimed it was before the BPU and would be decided this fall by the current Governor.

Corzine – McKeon dodged the issue, but  repeated the “keep the lights on” scare and defended the indefensible $18.6 million PSEG bribe to secure Highlands Council approval.

4. Rick Ege of Trout Unlimited asked about shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania and toxic impacts on the Delaware River, and whether each candidate would use NJ’s Governor’s authority at the Delaware River Basin Commission to block these projects.

Daggett – need to solve problems regionally. Not familiar with details, can’t take a position.

Christie – no position

Corzine – no position, but McKeon said maybe Corzine can work with Pa Governor as he did on Delaware dredge issue. Curiously, Corzine agreed to support the project.

5. A citizen and mother of a child with asthma asked about smart energy grid and the relationship between energy and public health.

Corzine – McKeon talked about importing midwest wind power. Seems like he was referring to Al Gore’s approach. EMP recognizes need to upgrade and integrate current grid. But he was basically clueless about what a smart grid or distributed energy mean.

Christie – Dovey made an historical analogy to the development of a unified railroad infrastructure by standardizing tracks, eliminating private control of technology decisions (track widths), government investment, et al.

Daggett – provided a strong argument for infrastructure policy and savagely criticized NJ’s policy on Transportation Trust borrowing and longstanding failure to comply with long term pay go finance. He said great need to expand wastewater and drinking water infrastructure programs.

6. A citizen (also professor of sustainability at a NJ university) asked about a stealth campaign to restore nuclear power as clean energy and build new plants. Also asked whether BPU could separate their regulatory role and renewable energy role – where BPU is not up to the task of meeting energy goals and managing that program. Could a new entity created to implement?

Daggett – monster budget deficit makes any new program impossible. He dodged the new nuke plant question with a straw man argument that it is not sound public policy to eliminate nuclear power out of hand.

Christie – no position

Corzine – McKeon repeated the keep the light on scare. Said nuke plants are safe and professional – perhaps he is unaware of the case of Dennis Zannoni, DEP’s Chief nuclear engineer that was canned for criticizing NRC ? Or this?  In the only new revelation of the evening, McKeon disclosed that he spent the weekend touring Barnegat Bay with DEP Commissioner Mauriello to consider constructing a new inlet around Brick to address massive pollution problems. McKeon really dodged the Corzine administration and DEP’s failure to require cooling towers at Oyster Creek to protect the Bay.

7. The Mayor of Maplewood asked the candidates to specifically identify what they would do too implement the EMP goals of 30% renewables by 202. Currently, NJ is only 3-4% so how can we get 26% more in next 11 years? Would candidtes support European approach, which provides financial incentives that set prices at long term fixed rates above current market prices ( NJ doesn’t come close Germany performance or financial incentives).

Corzine – McKeon talking points response.

Daggett – admitted we are not on track to meet these goals and probably won’t be in next 11 years.  Blamed “the bureaucracy” at BPU and DEP. Cheap shot. Pointed to “streamlining” recommendations of DEP Permit Efficiency Task Force.

Christie – no position.

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