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Christie’s Environmental Rollbacks Receiving National Attention

NJ Governor Chris Christie - on the right wing's radar screen.

NJ Governor Chris Christie – on the right wing’s radar screen.

While the depleted and crisis diverted NJ press corps has not yet covered the story, Washington DC outlets are writing about NJ Governor Christie’s environmental rollback agenda.

Christie has put NJ in the national spotlight, and the picture is not pretty (just read this right wing rag story: “Christie Takes on the Environmentalists” – what’s next? Tea-party Support Polluters rallies at the Statehouse? Is this how the NJ Republican Party wants to be perceived on a national stage? Are there no moderate voices in the party? Does Christie really want NJ to align with other governors, including Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi and Perry of Texas?)

But seriously – more credibly and substantively, the leading DC Beltway environmental policy trade journal “Inside EPA” wrote an extended piece. Inside EPA is widely read by opinion leaders and policy makers in Congress and EPA. The Inside EPA story puts Christie’s agenda in the context of a national republican backlash attack on Obama and government. Although Inside EPA is a  subscription Trade journal, I will run the risk of a copyright infringement challenge and take the liberty of excerpting significant portions of the article, under fair use public interest doctrine by a non profit:

New GOP States Flex Muscle, Signaling Strong Resistance To EPA Agenda

Recently elected Republican officials in New Jersey and Virginia, along with sitting GOP governors, are strongly resisting the Obama EPA’s agenda, signaling likely broader opposition from the states if the party gains control of more state houses in the upcoming 2010 elections — much as GOP state officials did during the Clinton era.

The new state-level action suggests a reversal from the Bush-era when Democrats used state offices to push for strict controls on toxic chemicals, greenhouse gases and other environmental pollutants.

Since taking office earlier this year — Govs. Robert McDonnell (R-VA) and Chris Christie (R-NJ), along with Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) — are taking steps to stall or reverse strict state environmental regulations and scale back funding for environmental agencies, steps that could harm several EPA efforts.

In New Jersey, for example, Christie’s administration delayed implementation of the state’s strictest-in-the-nation drinking water standard for the rocket-fuel ingredient perchlorate, and the governor is backing a bill working its way through the legislature barring the state from adopting standards stricter than EPA’s, which echoes executive orders he has already signed.

Christie has also named a controversial nominee with a track record in privatization but none in environmental matters to head the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) — a slot once held by Obama EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Despite his limited experience, nominee Bob Martin won confirmation from a state Senate panel March 15, where he testified that “DEP is broken and needs to be fixed.” Relevant documents are available on InsideEPA.com.

One New Jersey environmentalist calls the abandoned perchlorate standard “the first victim of [a] Christie moratorium and federal rollback policy.” [Note: that would be me!]

And in Virginia, McDonnell has postponed state stormwater rules and cut funding for state environmental agencies — both measures that could undermine EPA’s planned Chesapeake Bay cleanup. He is also expected to back a controversial bill that would roll back the state’s “clean smokestack” law enacted in 2006.

Cuccinelli and McDonnell have also joined with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) — who is running for re-election — and almost two dozen other states in a high-profile legal challenge to EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and the environment.

The actions in Virginia and New Jersey over the last two months show that “elections matter,” one state source says. …

While the state activities are not yet considered coordinated, sources say staff within the new administrations may be gearing up for more pushback and that the early activities could portend what is to come following the upcoming November elections, when 20 Democratic governors are up for reelection.

But already, the efforts by new GOP officials to limit strict environmental controls are being echoed by Republican gubernatorial candidates. In the party’s primary in California, for example, all of the GOP candidates are looking to block — at least temporarily — the state’s landmark climate change law, AB 32, which was signed by outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman — who is leading both her GOP challenger and the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Jerry Brown, in the latest polls — is calling for a one-year suspension of the law and scaling back the state’s environmental assessment law, while her challenger, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, wants to block the law’s implementation until employment levels rise.

Whitman and Poizner’s positions may be moot, however, as state officials are worried that an industry-funded ballot initiative may overturn the law (see related story).

In New Jersey, the activist group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is already strongly criticizing Christie’s early actions. “One of two Republican governors elected in 2009, Christie may offer a template of eco-dismantlement for other gubernatorial hopefuls seeking to capitalize on anti-government sentiment. Since many of the DEP programs operate under federal delegation with national minimum standards, Christie’s actions [on environmental issues] set him on a collision course with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, headed by former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson,” PEER says.

…..The source notes that during the Clinton administration, a handful of GOP-led states including Texas, Michigan, California and Virginia deliberately banded together to”make trouble” for EPA, challenging the agency’s effort to address environmental justice, enforcement policies and other measures.

…. The source does expect more agitation from Christie than McDonnell — and sees Christie possibly aligning with other governors, including Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi, Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia and possibly Perry of Texas.

“Christie . . . will look for a fight” the source says, adding his nomination of Martin to head DEP “surprises me not at all.” However, McDonnell lacks”fire in his belly,” according to the source, who notes he retained Kaines environmental secretary, David Paylor.

Nevertheless, Virginia environmentalists are worried about McDonnell, criticizing his support of the endangerment finding lawsuit filed by Cuccinelli, along with statements he has made supporting offshore drilling. Groups also sent McDonnell a March 11 letter urging him to veto the bill to weaken smokestack emission limits.

Additionally, they note he has dramatically cut funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup — from $20 million last year to $9 million in the current budget — while acknowledging the slash is consistent with dramatic budget cuts across all state agencies.

One Virginia environmentalist says groups are especially concerned about McDonnell’s “aggressive” support for offshore drilling. And the source notes that though he has been in office only a short time, – “There are some very disturbing actions taken by the governor . . . and we will see how he proceeds.” — Dawn Reeves

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