Will New Energy Master Plan Make Fossil Fuel A Dinosaur In New Jersey?

Murphy and BPU president Fiordaliso play it cagey when answering questions about the role of fossil fuel in governor’s clean-energy agenda

The state is planning to release a revamped energy plan in the next few weeks, but officials are keeping a tight rein on how much it will slow the prior administration’s aggressive expansion of New Jersey’s natural-gas infrastructure.

At an event yesterday, Gov. Phil Murphy and Board of Public Utilities president Joseph Fiordaliso extolled the administration’s clean-energy agenda. But they offered few, if any, insights into how it will impact the state’s heavy reliance on natural gas — a fuel that provides about 40 percent of New Jersey’s electricity and heats more than 70 percent of homes and businesses.

How those realities fit into the Murphy administration’s goal to have 100 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2050, and presumably a significant portion from New Jersey’s three nuclear plants, remain unanswered.

The issue is becoming more controversial as many environmental groups are pressing for a moratorium on new fossil-fuel projects. At least nine natural-gas pipelines or other projects are pending in the state, as well four natural-gas-fired power plants, most of which face fierce opposition.

Phasing out fossil fuels?

Fiordaliso was cautious in describing the administration’s plans for those projects. He declined to answer a question on whether the plan would phase out those projects, saying only “Wait until the master plan.’’

Asked if natural gas would be phased out of the state’s energy mix, as many organizations have called for, he only said that it, along with nuclear power, would be a bridge to a new clean-energy future.

Neither Fiordaliso nor Murphy mentioned the pending application by PSEG Power, which is seeking a $300 million ratepayer subsidy to keep its three nuclear power plants from closing. The company has threatened to close the units, the source of 90 percent of the state’s carbon-free electricity, without the subsidies. A decision is expected to be made on the subsidy at a BPU meeting next Thursday.

The proposed nuclear subsidy is opposed by an array of business, consumer, and environmental groups. Some fear it will crowd out limited state resources to fund clean-energy programs; others say the company has failed to demonstrate that its three nuclear plants are not profitable.

Not burning any bridges

But the question of how big a role natural gas plays in New Jersey’s energy future remains unanswered. “We need that bridge,’’ Fiordaliso said, answering questions from reporters after the event, saying natural gas and nuclear power will provide that link.

Both Murphy and Fiordaliso touted the steps New Jersey has taken to embrace a clean-energy economy — rejoining a regional initiative to curb greenhouse-gas pollution from power plants, setting goals to deploy offshore-wind farms, and reinvigorating the state’s solar industry.

Environmentalists were unimpressed. “Before they take a victory lap, they have to realize the roadblocks to a clean energy future — pipeline projects and new natural-gas power plants,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey state director of Clean Water Action, agreed. “Gas is not a gap fuel or bridge to the clean-energy future, it is a drive off the cliff to the dirty energy past,’’ she said.

Mobilizing for a moratorium

Both organizations are part of a new coalition pressing the state to impose a moratorium on fossil fuel projects, a strategy so far ignored by the Murphy administration despite its clean-energy goals.

When asked whether the state would phase out new fossil-fuel projects, Fiordaliso declined to answer, saying wait until the latest energy master plan is issued. “I think it is going to be an exciting energy master plan,’’ he said.

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