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Murphy no longer ‘greenest governor,’ environmental group and key ally says

BY: RY RIVARD | 01/17/2023 05:01 AM EST | UPDATED 01/17/2023 10:12 AM EST

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s State of the State last week barely mentioned the environment, while New York Gov. Kathy Hochul used hers to throw support behind a cap and trade program to ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions.

Murphy’s relative silence on climate and the environment was yet another disappointing turn for environmentalists in the state, including the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, which had once championed Murphy as “America’s greenest governor.”

Now, the group is stripping Murphy of the superlative.

In the league’s eyes, the two-term progressive Democrat’s early promises and triumphs in Trenton are being surpassed by green policies coming out of not just Albany and Sacramento, Calif., but Springfield, Ill., and Annapolis, Md.

“It’s clear that Gov. Murphy has put us on a strong track for environment protection, but other states have eclipsed him,” the league’s executive director, Ed Potosnak, said in an interview.

The league’s annual report card, which it shared first with POLITICO, gives Murphy a B-plus, down from an A last year. But the decision to stop calling him the greenest governor is a denouement to a series of frustrations environmentalists say have been building up for well over a year.

Potosnak said that while there isn’t a formal national process to pick the “greenest governor,” the New Jersey league first applied it to Murphy after looking around the country at other governors and seeing Murphy’s early promise and success. It’s now removing the title after seeing what other governors are up to.

One of the key disappointments for the league is waning aggressiveness on setting and meeting climate change goals.

When Murphy was first elected in 2017 with Al Gore’s backing, he had campaigned on a 100 percent clean energy goal. Now, the state’s clean energy master plan calls for the state to be nearly fossil fuel-free by 2050. But under President Joe Biden, the nation has similar goals, and states are starting to move even faster.

Maryland’s new governor, Democrat Wes Moore, wants to see 100 percent clean energy by 2035 and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed a bill with a 2045 target.

In a statement after this story published, the governor’s office defended the administration’s work over the past year and said the state remains a “national leader in climate adaptation and mitigation.”

“New Jersey LCV’s environmental progress report serves as further encouragement to develop and implement comprehensive policies that will best safeguard New Jersey communities amid the worsening climate crisis,” spokesperson Bailey Lawrence said in an email.

This time last year, advocate frustration was clear as Murphy began his second term. The governor barely mentioned the environment and climate in a trio of major speeches, including his second inaugural address and his 2022 budget and State of the State addresses.

During the year, a series of long-promised rules to prevent new construction in flood-prone areas were pared down and barely saw the light of day. Long-awaited environmental justice rules were drafted, made public but not finalized. A greenhouse rule was modified to appease fuel merchants. And his administration is pushing a major highway expansion that one of his potential successors as governor, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, is trying to help block.

It’s not clear why some of these things have been slow to roll out. There are certainly political forces at play — including labor and business interests — that don’t always see eye to eye with the governor, and whom he would need if he were to seek higher office (Murphy is term-limited and cannot seek a third term as governor). Charitably, some say the agencies tasked with making rhetoric reality, such as the Board of Public Utilities and the Department of Environmental Protection, can only do so much at once.

But as Murphy heads into the latter half of his second term, the wins he does have may need to be shored up if his existing legacy is to remain intact.

Murphy’s administration has approved three offshore wind farms, a key part of his clean energy goals. But construction has yet to begin and the projects continue to face political and economic obstacles.

In its report card, the League of Conservation Voters said there are things Murphy could do to get back their “greenest governor,” title, such as updating the clean energy master plan, filling vacancies on environmental protection commissions and ending a budget maneuver that takes utility ratepayer money earmarked for clean energy and uses it to prop up NJ Transit.

Those things can’t be done in a vacuum. Clean energy costs money. Some of New Jersey’s fiercest political fights are over land use. And the governor is aiming to get through another budget cycle without raising taxes.

“I was a science teacher for over a decade, and I know an A student when I see one, and I believe Murphy can be the greenest governor again,” Potosnak said.

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