Governor Murphy sets new state targets to reduce fossil fuel reliance

Critics applaud ideas but say state is too slow in implementing reforms

By: - February 15, 2023 5:16 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy's plan includes shifting away from fossil fuels in vehicles and buildings and aiming for a 100% green economy by 2035, instead of 2050. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Gov. Phil Murphy announced a sweeping set of environmental measures Wednesday intended to step up the state’s fight against climate change and speed its progress toward a fully green economy.

The changes include everything from investing millions to electrify cars and buildings to hastening the state’s clean-energy goals.

“We can’t undo the years of air pollution that have impacted generations of kids with asthma and left our planet warming. We can’t undo the years of water pollution that have degraded rivers and increased health risks, particularly in impacted communities. We can’t undo the rising seas and more extreme rainfall,” Murphy said in a noon speech at Rutgers University. “But we must and do govern with a deep and abiding belief that we cannot leave our kids and grandkids to fate. We must take this on. We must take it on now.”

Most notably, Murphy said he’ll issue an executive order advancing the state’s 100% clean energy target from 2050 to 2035, a target that calls for all electricity sold in New Jersey to come from a renewable source instead of fossil fuels.

To get there, Murphy set a building electrification goal of getting 400,000 of the state’s 3.7 million homes and 20,000 commercial spaces by 2030 to use electricity or other renewable energy sources instead of fuel for heating.

Because cars and trucks are the single greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions in New Jersey, he set 2035 as the goal for all passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks sold in New Jersey to be electric, similar to standards already implemented in California. He also earmarked $70 million from a multistate greenhouse gas initiative to electrify medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, especially school buses, garbage trucks, and other vehicles that serve marginalized communities overburdened by pollution.

There were about 80,600 electric vehicles registered in New Jersey as of last summer — just 1% of 6 million total registered vehicles.

Murphy said he’ll issue another executive order directing the state’s Board of Public Utilities to further plot the state’s shift away from fossil fuels and its impact on utilities.

And last, he announced state environmental officials will accelerate efforts to tighten regulations in coastal and river areas to advance the state’s climate threats plan, focusing on inland flood controls, stormwater and floodplain management, and sea level rise response.

“Unless we take steps now to make resilience a top priority, we’re never going to get families off the merry-go-round of flood, rebuild, repeat, with untold upheaval to their lives and to their finances,” Murphy said.

That particular “new” measure is actually old because Murphy first issued an executive order on a climate threats plan in January 2020. The goal then was to have those regulations in place by last July.

Activists rallied at Rutgers University ahead of a speech Gov. Phil Murphy delivered on Feb. 15, 2023, to announce new goals in the state’s fight against climate change. (Photo courtesy of Food & Water Watch)

All talk, no action?

Environmentalists who applauded the sentiment of Murphy’s speech Wednesday were skeptical the state would hit the new targets, given the Murphy administration’s sluggish pace so far on environmental reforms and its failure to fight new fossil fuel projects, including power plants and rail plans.

“We appreciate it takes time to get rules and other policies right, but we’ve run out of time when it comes to climate change and Gov. Murphy’s term of office. Even after discounting COVID, the adoption and implementation of these laws and orders are way behind schedule,” said Amy Goldsmith, state director of Clean Water Action. “Framing up a house is not the same as finishing it so you can live in it. Proclaiming climate leader status is not the same as actually being out in front of the pack. We need to act today, not just plan for tomorrow.”

Goldsmith pointed to other Murphy administration practices that undermine its commitment to clean energy, such as its habit of raiding the state’s clean energy fund to cover unrelated state budget gaps.

Sam DiFalco, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, joined a few dozen activists who rallied outside Murphy’s speech.

“Any climate action plan that doesn’t involve an end to new fossil fuel projects is not good enough because we have to get ourselves out of a climate hole — and that means we have to stop digging us deeper by allowing new fossil fuel projects,” DiFalco said.

Paula Rogovin of Teaneck participated in the rally and shouted at Murphy after he finished talking Wednesday, asking whether he’d act to stop new power plants. Rogovin is a member of Don’t Gas the Meadowlands and Empower NJ, which has focused its advocacy on seven fossil fuel projects underway around the state.

“I don’t get disappointed if I have no expectations, and I’m not disappointed. I’m angry,” Rogovin said of Murphy’s speech. “We hoped he would say something about the power plants. He said nothing. You can’t say we’re going to cut emissions to zero by 2035 — and build a power plant at the same time.”

Jeff Tittel, a longtime environmental activist, also questioned Murphy’s strategy of issuing executive orders without accompanying mandates or funding mechanisms, calling his speech “hot air.”

“Executive orders without implementation are hallucinations,” Tittel said. “There needs to be legislation, regulations, and mandates to get done, otherwise it’s just talk.”

Murphy’s announcement left some in New Jersey’s business community with a sour taste too. Ray Cantor of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association especially took issue with his goal of 100% electric vehicle sales by 2030.

“Such a steep ramp-up in electric-only vehicles over 12 years in New Jersey seems impractical, if not impossible, when you consider the lack of charging infrastructure and planning for it,” Cantor said. “Such a policy also begs the obvious question of where all this increased power will be sourced from.”

Republicans, too, were critical.

“Governor Murphy is out of his mind if he thinks he is saving the planet by eliminating gas-powered cars and homes. He is driving people out of New Jersey with his radical mandates that only eliminate energy options, affordability and jobs,” said Assemblyman Greg McGuckin (R-Ocean).

Legislation coming

Murphy will be long gone by the time the target dates arrive, leaving some to wonder whether the state’s next governor will carry through with his clean-energy plans.

But Murphy administration officials said they are working with legislators to draft legislation to codify the governor’s goals. And they expect federal and state incentives, such as Inflation Reduction Act funding, will help persuade residents and businesses to get on board and ensure the state meets the new goals.

The governor blamed his predecessor, Chris Christie, for the state’s poky progress on environmental issues. Under Christie’s leadership, New Jersey in 2011 dropped out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, costing the state $279 million in carbon credit auction proceeds, Murphy said. New Jersey rejoined the multi-state partnership in 2018.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.