TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey is dropping out of the Northeast's program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Republican Gov. Chris Christie announced Thursday, calling the pact a failure at cutting pollution and a burden to taxpayers.
The decision to withdraw from the 10-state cap-and-trade program at the end of the year marks a turnaround for New Jersey, a heavily industrialized state that was an early backer of efforts to curb the heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming.
Environmentalists were dismayed, while conservatives were thrilled.
"This program is not effective in reducing greenhouse gases and is unlikely to be in the future," said Christie, a first-term governor and rising GOP star who has been widely mentioned as potential presidential candidate because of his combative stands on teacher unions, government spending and taxes. "It is a failure."
The federal Environmental Protection Agency urged him to reconsider.
"This is a disappointing step given New Jersey's legacy of leadership on environmental issues," said EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan. The EPA's administrator, Lisa Jackson, was chief of New Jersey's environmental agency when the state joined the pact, which went into effect in 2008.
Christie is just the latest Republican governor to announce that his state would withdraw from a regional pact to reduce greenhouse gases. Similar agreements in the West and Midwest are struggling. And efforts by the Obama administration to establish a national cap-and-trade program have failed in Congress.
The Northeastern pact, called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, sets limits on carbon dioxide emissions by fossil fuel-burning power plants and requires them to buy permits to release such gases. The permits can be bought and sold among plants, giving them a financial incentive to operate more cleanly.
The cap-and-trade pact "does nothing more than tax electricity, tax our citizens, tax our businesses with no discernible or measurable impact upon our environment," Christie said. Residential customers in states that participate in the pact paid an average of about 73 cents extra on their monthly electric bill to fund the program.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, disputed the governor's assessment of the pact's effectiveness, saying it is working as designed.
He said New Jersey's greenhouse gas emissions from electric power plants had declined 10 percent since 2009. He said the pact was responsible for creating 18,000 jobs in the region and generating $2.3 billion in economic benefits.
The immediate effects of New Jersey's pullout could be small. After Christie's announcement, a majority of the other participating Northeastern states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — indicated their intention to stay in the pact.
And since global climate change is a worldwide problem, any reductions achieved by the Northeastern states were not expected to make a dent in overall greenhouse gas emissions. The program was largely seen as a test run for future national and international emissions trading pacts.
New Jersey emits less pollution from power plants than New York, Massachusetts and Maryland, but that is because it imports more energy from other states, including from Pennsylvania, which does not participate in RGGI, said Dale Bryk, director of Air and Energy Programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The EPA has come under attack in recent years from Republicans who say the agency is taking job-destroying steps to reduce global warming pollution. Some conservatives have been pressing governors in the Northeast to abandon the pact.
"Today, I'm proud to say Christie is our governor," said Steve Lonegan, head of the state's Americans for Prosperity chapter. AFP is backed by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch of energy giant Koch Industries, which has been lobbying around the country for the repeal of the program.
Christie's announcement puts him in line with three Republicans running for president or considering doing so. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Jon Huntsman of Utah and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts all supported regional emissions trading programs as governors of their states, but none of them do now. Christie has said he is not interested in running for president.
Christie, who in November raised questions about the causes of global warming, said Thursday that he believes climate change is real and caused, at least partially, by human activity. He said he is committed to increasing offshore wind production and making solar energy more affordable.
Pacts in the West and the Midwest have struggled in recent years as Republicans have postponed or delayed their states' participation. For instance, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed an executive order 15 months ago to extract the state from its commitment.
No other Northeast governor immediately followed Christie's lead Thursday, but lawmakers in some states, including New Hampshire and Delaware, have recently tried to exit the program.
In Washington, Obama and EPA endorsed legislation that would have launched a national market for pollution permits to be bought and sold. The bill failed to pass the last Congress, when Democrats were in charge. And with Republicans now controlling the House, Obama has said he would pursue other means of fighting global warming.
Lonegan said he hoped New Jersey's pullout would signal the collapse of the entire program.
Though Democrats control the New Jersey Legislature, the majority party may be powerless to stop the Republican governor from carrying out the exit strategy because no legislation is required for him to do so.
"Sadly, this day will go down in history as the one in which New Jersey ceded its standing as a leader in environmental protection efforts," said Assemblyman John McKeon, a Democrat and chairman of the Assembly environment committee.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Norma Love in Concord, N.H.; Mary Esch in Albany, N.Y.; and Dina Cappiello in Washington.