New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has decided not to run for president in 2012, despite a long recruitment push by his Republican supporters. But Christie's brand of blunt, blue-state conservatism has already made him a GOP star — and raised the national relevance of his views on tricky environmental issues like renewable energy, offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing and public transit.
Christie has a complicated environmental record, much like New Jersey itself. The New Jersey Environmental Foundation endorsed him in 2009 over incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, for example — the first time it had endorsed a Republican in a statewide race in almost 30 years — but Environment New Jersey then gave him a grade of D+ in its 2010 environmental report card.
Christie won over the NJEF and other environmentalists in '09 largely due to disillusionment with Corzine, who had "repeatedly broken promises and weakened key environmental and public health protections," according to an NJEF statement. In the context of New Jersey's checkered environmental history, Christie seemed to represent a breath of fresh air. And halfway through his first term as governor — with plenty of national buzz remaining, possibly as a running mate in 2012 or a presidential candidate in 2016 — he continues to embody his home state's up-and-down relationship with the natural environment.
Manmade global warming is a political hot potato for most Republicans, and Christie is no exception. But while many in the GOP are openly suspicious of climate science, Christie has begun sounding more like Mitt Romney and Jon Hunstman than Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann. After saying in 2010 that he's "skeptical" of humans' role in climate change — adding that "we're going to need more science to prove something" — he has softened his tone lately. In a speech on May 26, he said:
"I'm certainly not a scientist, which is the first problem. So I can't claim to fully understand all of this, certainly not after just a few months of study. But when you have over 90 percent of the world's scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role, it's time to defer to the experts."
Yet in typical Christie style, he won't fully defer to anyone. While the above quote seems to reflect an open mind about climate change, it also came during a speech in which Christie announced plans to pull New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 10-state pact designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The move angered many environmentalists, but Christie insisted he only pulled out because the RGGI wasn't working, not because he doubts climate science. "We have an obligation to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions," he said, adding that "we're not going to do it by participating in gimmicky programs that haven't worked."
In place of the RGGI, Christie says New Jersey must focus on boosting energy efficiency ("The cheapest power is the power we don't have to generate, distribute and deliver," his website explains) as well as renewable energy.
Even while giving Christie a D+ on its 2010 report card, Environment New Jersey acknowledged he did "champion wind power, backing a strong policy that could give our state the nation's first offshore wind farm." That was the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act of 2010, which offers financial aid and tax credits to companies that build offshore wind farms in state waters. New Jersey also already generates the second-most solar power of any state, and Christie has often emphasized his support for both forms of renewable energy. According to a Sept. 29 press release:
"The Christie Administration has a proven record of commitment to securing the environmental and economic benefits of renewable energy in New Jersey. In addition to solar, the wind power movement is providing ... a unique opportunity to advance green energy as industry."
On the other hand, Christie took heat last year after he used $400 million in clean-energy funds to balance the state budget, and again when he redistributed $65 million from the state's RGGI revenues. And he drew more criticism this summer when he unveiled plans to scale back New Jersey's official clean-energy goals. The state had planned to generate 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2021, but now aims for Christie's more "achievable" target of 22.5 percent.
Offshore (and onshore) drilling
Offshore oil and gas is always a big issue for East Coast governors, and it has given Christie a way to bolster his fragile cred with New Jersey environmentalists. When President Obama was pushing for more offshore drilling in March 2010 — just a few weeks before BP's Gulf oil spill — Christie told the Newark Star-Ledger he wasn't a fan. "I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of drilling off the coast of New Jersey," he said. "New Jersey's coast is one of its economic engines, and I would have to really be convinced of both the economic viability ... and the environmental safety. And at this point, I'm not convinced of either." Christie has also scored points with green groups by blocking liquefied natural gas plants off the Jersey shore.
When it comes to onshore drilling — namely the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" — Christie seems to have hedged his bets. He recently vetoed a bill to ban the practice in New Jersey, but then imposed a one-year moratorium pending more research into its safety. That's significant, considering Christie's distaste for such regulations; he has tried to let state officials waive environmental regulations on a case-by-case basis, but the state Senate is fighting that proposal.
Christie takes a moderate stance on many environmental issues, but he also knows frugality is what impresses today's GOP base. And so last fall, at the risk of burning already-rickety bridges with environmentalists, he killed what the New York Times called "the largest public transit project in the nation" — an $8.7 billion commuter-rail tunnel that would have run under the Hudson River, linking New Jersey to New York.
The project had been touted as a model for sustainable urban transit, with supporters arguing it would reduce congestion, improve air quality and raise property values by doubling the number of eastbound trains into New York each day. It was also expected to employ some 6,000 construction workers, but Christie was turned off by the specter of cost overruns: A review by New Jersey transportation officials projected its total cost would likely be at least $11 billion, and could even exceed $14 billion. (As the Times also reported, however, Christie was less bothered by cost overruns this year when he decided to revive a long-delayed megamall in East Rutherford.)
Overall, Christie is a product of both time and place: He's riding a national wave of fiscal conservatism, but he's also still a plainspoken pragmatist from the pressure cooker of New Jersey politics. By deciding not to run for president in 2012, he may be letting himself ripen on the vine until 2016 — and as New Jersey environmentalists have learned, it's almost impossible to predict what he'll do in the meantime.
Also on MNN:
- Rick Perry's environmental record
- Herman Cain's environmental record
- Jon Huntsman's environmental record
- Michele Bachmann's environmental record
- Rick Santorum's environmental record
- Tim Pawlenty's environmental record
- Newt Gingrich's environmental record
- Mitt Romney's environmental record