TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- New Jersey's Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation Monday to force Gov. Chris Christie to stay in a multistate pact to reduce greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
The effort to thwart the Republican governor's planned pullout from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative comes amid vocal protests that New Jersey is forfeiting its status as a national leader in green economy and a debate over what impact the state's two years of participation has really had.
Christie announced last month that he was pulling the state from the initiative, dubbed RGGI, by year's end. The three-bill package introduced Monday would foil that by making participation in the initiative state law and framing any deviation from it as inconsistent with the Legislature's expressed intent to support initiatives that combat global warming.
"This is just a giant step backwards," Assemblyman John McKeon said of Christie's plan to opt out of the initiative.
McKeon, who chairs the Assembly environmental committee and sponsored all three bills to forestall the pullout, said he hopes to pass the bills by July 1, but they face an almost certain veto from Christie. Democrats would need a two-thirds majority vote to override the governor's veto.
"The governor's position on RGGI, its shortcomings and failures are well-known by now, and he's made his decision, which was final and within his authority," said Michael Drewniak, Christie's spokesman.
RGGI seeks to reduce carbon dioxide pollution 10 percent by 2018, by setting limits on emissions by power plants that burn fossil fuels. To release polluting gases, energy producers must acquire permits, which can be bought and sold among plants, making it fiscally prudent to rein in their emissions. New Jersey is one of 10 Northeast states that agreed to participate in the program.
The package also includes a resolution urging the state to amend its constitution to require that all money deposited into the Clean Energy Fund be used for renewable energy and conservation projects. Revenues from RGGI purchased through the pact are earmarked for renewable energy projects, but Christie diverted $65 million in RGGI funds and $158 million from the Clean Energy Fund in 2010 to help plug the state's budget gap, according to a draft copy of the Democratic legislation obtained by The Associated Press.
The bills are co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith, chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, and Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, chairman of the Assembly committee dealing with utilities.
Earlier Wednesday, Chivukula's committee called on experts to determine the environmental and economic impacts of pulling out of the regional initiative. But testimony from the state Department of Environmental Protection, business alliances, environmental groups and a national security think tank revealed no consistent answers.
"We don't believe that RGGI has impacted carbon emissions," said Ray Cantor, a senior official with the state Department of Environmental Protection. "All we're talking about is a tax."
PSE&G, the state's largest utility, had supported New Jersey's participation in RGGI, but pressed by a Republican Assemblyman's questioning, it acknowledged that its operation of existing power plants would probably not be affected by the pullout.
But environmental groups said the program had cut pollution, created thousands of jobs across the region and spurred investments in clean energy options, leaving lawmakers with the predicament of deciding whose word to take on the programs' effectiveness.
While no other states have pulled out of RGGI, similar agreements in the Midwest and West are struggling to maintain participation. In the wake of President Barack Obama's failed attempt to push a national cap-and-trade program through Congress, the issue has become a litmus test for Republicans contemplating White House bids.
As governors, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Jon Huntsman of Utah and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts all supported regional cap-and-trade programs, but none of them do now. Christie has said he will not run for president in 2012, despite ongoing attempts to recruit him by GOP kingmakers across the country.