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Phil Murphy the environmental crusader? Critics say his actions don't make the grade

In June, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration denied permits to a controversial pipeline that would send natural gas from New Jersey under Raritan Bay to New York City — a move that environmentalists said reaffirmed the governor’s goals to move the state away from fossil fuels.

A week later, Murphy’s representative on the Delaware River Basin Commission voted with others to approve permits for a massive liquefied natural gas port on the Delaware River in Gloucester County that will allow a glut of gas fracked from Pennsylvania to be compressed and loaded onto ships for export.

Those two decisions —  seven days apart — capture what many see as Murphy’s inconsistency with environmental issues despite his forceful campaigning as a green candidate.

Murphy often boasts that his administration is leading the charge against climate change, which he calls an "existential threat." And he has said he is making New Jersey "a national model for sound, fact-based, pro-growth, and proudly progressive and forward-leaning policymaking." 

While Murphy has laid out an aggressive agenda for New Jersey to become more reliant on renewable energy, states such as California, New York and Washington have set more ambitious goals that put them at the vanguard of a growing movement by cities and states to try countering the threats of climate change through local environmental policy. 

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Murphy, a Democrat, has also been dogged by criticism that he lacks a sense of urgency for passing key measures that could stem the impact of climate change. And he is faulted by some, including his environmental supporters, that his talk on climate change doesn't match the reality of his actions as governor.

He has not fulfilled his promise to reopen the Office of Climate Change, which was shuttered by former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. Murphy has diverted hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental funds to help balance the state budget. New Jersey is one of two coastal states without climate adaptation plans. And the administration has not set forth rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions or rolled back Christie-era regulations viewed as harmful to the environment. 

“We’d like to see more agreement between his rhetoric and what he’s willing to do politically and expend the capital on,” said Amy Goldsmith, longtime state director of the advocacy group Clean Water Action

Gov. Phil Murphy speaking at a press conference.

A coalition of several dozen environmental groups and progressive organizations that make up Murphy's base say the most egregious errors so far are a failure to impose a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects and redefining clean energy in its draft energy master plan to mean carbon-neutral — a key distinction that allows for carbon production in ways such as trash incineration and new power plants.

Murphy made a campaign pledge to "eventually" reach 100 percent carbon-free electricity. But his office said, without elaborating, that there are a "number of regional restraints and challenges to going completely carbon-free." 

The master plan, which serves as the state's guiding policy document, also does not set near-term benchmarks that environmental groups say are needed to meet the scientific community's clarion call to sharply reduce emissions by 2030 and reach "net zero" carbon emissions by 2050. 

Net zero emissions, as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Climate Assessment, means reducing carbon output economy-wide to zero or at least dramatically reducing emissions and offsetting the rest through removal methods.

New Jersey's definition of carbon-neutral is similar but does not apply as widely, leaving room for emissions elsewhere. Under state law passed in 2007, New Jersey would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent of 2006 levels by 2050.

"Defining clean energy as carbon-neutral is something Donald Trump would do. It's Orwellian. It's like Ben and Jerry saying their ice cream is vegan," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.

Already taking a toll

Murphy is vocal that climate change is already taking a toll on New Jersey and the planet. His moves to ban offshore drilling, jump-start wind and solar energy production, aggressively use lawsuits against polluters and President Donald Trump and rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a multistate cap-and-trade program designed to reduce emissions — have earned praise from even his toughest critics.

But many advocates say much more aggressive action is needed from him to adequately fight the impacts of climate change over the next several years. 

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“The rollbacks were so massive under Christie that you can’t just chisel away at the edges,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “You need a full reversal. We have seen progress on that front, but not fast enough.”

Murphy's office said his Department of Environmental Protection has "improved upon" many of the Christie-era regulations and proposed "the most far-reaching stream protection rule in nearly a decade" that will buffer the waterways from development. An effort to regulate chemicals in groundwater and drinking water has also drawn worldwide attention, said Alexandra Altman, a spokeswoman for the governor. 

And the administration has done "far more" than just reopening the Office of Climate Change, she said, by naming a chief resilience officer and reorganizing the Climate & Flood Resilience Program, which "serves as a hub responsible for coordinating the climate change resilience and adaptation work ongoing in many programs across the DEP." 

One of Murphy's most reliable supporters, the League of Conservation Voters, said the governor deserves praise for re-focusing the state on environmental issues, particularly renewable energy. 

“He has to make up for eight years of lost time under Christie,” said the group's executive director, Ed Potosnak. “There are areas where there is impatience, especially in the environmental community. But we think he’s living up to our expectations and his vision for the environment.” 

The impatience is due to the immediate threat of climate change, which is heightened in New Jersey because rising sea levels threaten thousands of properties. Nationally, the planet's warming trend will have devastating effects on the economy, health and agriculture, according to the national climate assessment

"The verdict is in," Murphy tweeted when that assessment was released in November. "The world must act now to curb the cataclysmic effects of climate change." 

Environmental groups agree. Placing a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects would send a message that Murphy is more serious about boldly addressing climate change, but he could do even better by setting immediate goals to reduce emissions, they said.  

"There’s no plan in place to seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next 10 years when the scientists are telling us we need to have at least a 45 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 if we’re going to avoid climate catastrophe," said Jonathan Reichman, an attorney on the board of the advocacy group Blue Wave NJ. "That seems to be the gold standard." 

Perhaps most frustrating to environmentalists is Murphy's position on fossil fuels. The administration supports a plan set in motion by Christie for NJ Transit to build a gas-fired power plant in the Meadowlands, a move that promises to keep local and Amtrak rail lines reliably powered even during extreme weather but would add another major source of greenhouse gas emissions to the region.

Murphy has also been mum on about a dozen fossil fuel projects throughout the state that environmental groups say would derail his clean energy goals. Among them is a power plant slated for the Meadowlands that would be tied for the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the state if built.

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"I don’t understand how the governor cannot see his own hypocrisy in that," said Matt Smith, an organizer for Food & Water Watch New Jersey, which is one of the groups that make up the Empower New Jersey coalition seeking to strengthen the energy master plan. 

Smith pointed to Murphy's words the day the climate assessment was released as an example of the mismatch between the governor's rhetoric and his actions. 

"Murphy is very quick to jump on Twitter and say this is the single biggest moral issue of our time and sort of mirroring the rhetoric of the campaign trail, which is that he was going to be a national leader," Smith said. "But when it gets to actual policy, whether implemented or proposed, he falls far short of the mark." 

There is still time for Murphy to alter course. The energy master plan should be finalized by the end of the year, and it "will reflect" the feedback over months of hearings and input, Altman said. It will also include scientific data modeling to inform "the most strategic and cost-effective" path toward the future, she said.

But there's no indication the final product will live up to the expectations of the state's general environmental community.

"We will be evaluating this data to determine our path forward and what the right mix of energy sources are, including renewables and carbon-neutral options, to get to 100 percent clean energy at a cost-effective rate for ratepayers and promote economic development," Altman said.

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