Beginning Friday (Feb 5), the state will oversee a multi-billion dollar auction that will help determine how much customers pay for the electricity to power their homes and businesses. In an annual process, the state’s four electric utilities will buy the power they need to supply their customers as of this coming June. If recent trends hold, the auction should not have much of an impact, either higher or lower, on utility bills. In last year’s auction, there were modest drops in the price of power purchased by two of the four utilities, with costs dropping up to 4 percent for Atlantic City Electric and dipping by 3.2 percent for Rockland Electric. Jersey City Power & Light bills remained relatively flat, while Public Service Electric & Gas customers saw increases of about 2 percent. Two separate online auctions will be held. The first, starting Friday (Feb. 5), will be for the power to be sold to larger commercial and industrial customers. Those customers generally have seen the biggest benefit of deregulation, which has given them the ability to negotiate lower prices from competing power producers vying for their business. The second auction, set to begin next week (Feb. 8), will be for residential and small commercial customers, the majority of whom will continue to have their electricity supplied by their incumbent utility. The price these incumbent’s charge customers is set during the auction; the utility passes those costs directly on to customers without making any profit.
The approval of a controversial 22-mile natural-gas pipeline through the core of the Pinelands has triggered a lawsuit against the Board of Public Utilities, the commission charged with overseeing the international biosphere and state utility regulators. The New Jersey Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey yesterday announced they would challenge the decisions that led to the authorization of a South Jersey Gas project to build a pipeline through the preserve to the B.L. England plant in Beesley’s Point in Cape May. The project, approved by the state BPU in December after a prolonged multiyear battle, is perhaps the most controversial of more than a dozen gas-pipeline projects to be proposed in New Jersey.
Besides environmental and conservation groups, the pipeline drew opposition from four former governors, two Republican and a pair of Democrats. The primary objections centered on the route, which would cross through some of the most protected land in the 1 million acres Pinelands National Reserve. “Forty years after passage of the Pinelands Act, we are trying to save the Pinelands again,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club in announcing the legal challenge, which had been expected. “What we are seeing is a dismantling of the Pinelands step by step by the Christie administration.’’ The announcement of the lawsuit came a day after the BPU gave preliminary approval to still another gas-pipeline project by New Jersey Natural Gas, which also crosses through the Pinelands. If that project moves forward, Tittel vowed it, too, would be challenged in the courts.
Still, the litigation faces big hurdles since state courts generally give deference to departments’ and agencies’ expertise in matters of policy and technical issues related to implementation. The South Jersey project finally won approval after a protracted fight, one that conservationists initially blocked when it first came up before the Pinelands Commission in January 2012. At the time, the commission split evenly on a plan to pave the way for the pipeline. The pipeline was revived after Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the Pinelands commission, wrote a letter, in essence, determining the project was a “private development’’ that did not need to be approved by the commission. The BPU final approval followed, with commissioners ruling the project as reasonably necessary, one that would allow the power plant to run on a cleaner source of fuel than the coal it once burned. The Christie administration wants to shut down coal plants and switch to natural gas as the fuel to generate electricity, a policy it says will promote greater reliability and cleaner air.
In trying to block the new pipeline, the environmental groups are relying most on technical claims, the primary one arguing that the staff letter saying the project is consistent with the commission’s Comprehensive Management Plan is a violation of the Pinelands Protection Act. They argue that the primary rationale behind the pipeline is to supply natural gas to the power plant; it does not serve the needs of the Pinelands and thus, violates the plan. They also contend that continued operation of the plant is unnecessary and unneeded to maintain reliability of the power grid.
Capital NY report: Assemblyman John Wisniewski said Wednesday that NJ Transit is chronically underfunded and that the state must spend more on public transportation to make it affordable for New Jerseyans living in poverty. “It’s not sustainable, it is a house of cards,” Wisniewski, chairman of the Assembly transportation and independent authorities committee, said during a hearing on how the state’s transportation system can be a barrier to residents living in poverty. But Assemblyman Scott Rumana said subsidies for NJ Transit are at record highs, and that riders should be paying their fair share. Rumana said the state should instead focus on ways to make New Jersey more affordable, rather than pouring more money into mass transit.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto testified the state must make public transit more affordable for its poorest residents, and said it was an “embarrassment” that he needed to discuss this issue in 2016. The state must be multi-pronged in its approach to improve transportation access, he said, and “we can’t have the status quo.” Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said in her testimony that transit fare hikes are a tax on the working poor. A family living on a strained budget may have to choose between paying for food or transportation, she said. “Investing in an affordable transportation system is a clear way out of poverty,” she said. Ann Vardeman, program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, agreed, and said New Jersey cannot rebuild its economy if workers cannot commute to work. “Without a well-maintained transportation infrastructure, the entire economy, if not the entire northeast corridor, grinds to a halt,” she said.
Sponsors and advocates of a bill requiring nonprofit hospitals to start paying fees to their host communities say they’ll waste no time getting back to work — now that the measure has fallen victim to Gov. Chris Christie’s pocket veto. Time is of the essence, they say, because dates for municipal property-tax assessments and appeals are looming. The goal is to avoid potentially costly lawsuits in communities throughout the state, much like the one that successfully challenged Morristown Medical Center’s tax-exempt status. In that case, Morristown officials argued in state tax court that the hospital should lose its tax-exempt status because some for-profit services — including those offered by self-employed doctors operating at the facility. More than 60 nonprofit hospitals enjoy property tax-exempt status in New Jersey under tax law that dates all the way back to 1913. The legislation would have preserved the property-tax exemption for nonprofit hospitals, but also required them to begin paying a $2.50 per-bed daily fee, with a 2 percent annual adjustment to account for inflation, to their host municipalities. In addition, a $250 per-day fee would be levied for satellite emergency-care facilities. But last week Gov. Christie, rejected the bill and dozens of others that lawmakers sent to him in the very final hours of the last two-year legislative session. In many cases, Christie utilized the pocket veto to issue his rejection without explanation, a power that is only available to him at the end of a legislative session.
On Wednesday January 27, the state cleared the way for another natural-gas pipeline to be built in Southern NJ, which is the second one given a green light in little over a month. Like the previous pipeline approved in December, the 30-mile project by New Jersey Natural Gas would cross a portion of the Pinelands. The so-called Southern Reliability Link is designed to provide more dependable gas delivery to the company’s customers in Monmouth and Ocean counties. The pipeline was approve unanimously and the NJ Board of Public Utilities said it supports the goals of the state’s Energy Master Plan to expand the use of natural gas by extending the state’s pipeline infrastructure. But conservation groups opposed the project as unnecessary, saying it would impose new costs on customers and spur new growth in the region. They argue that the pipeline will shift investment away from cleaner forms of energy like solar wind. In the end, staff and commissioners said the selected alignment has the least impact of any of the alternatives studied, with a major consideration being to limit the pipeline from passing within 100 feet of existing structures.