Obama Action Group Joins Fight Against Christie's Climate Pact Exit

OFA's involvement in the campaign to get New Jersey Gov. Christie to rejoin a regional carbon trading scheme sends several political signals.

An organizer for Obama's Organizing for Action, a grassroots advocacy group, hangs a sign. The action group has not always signed on with environmental groups on hot-button issues, namely the fight against the Keystone pipeline. But it is joing the battle to compel Gov. Christe to rejoin the greenhouse gas initiative he abandoned unilaterally in 2011. Credit: OFA

Environmental activists who have been campaigning for three years to get New Jersey to rejoin a regional cap-and-trade system have a potent new ally: Organizing for Action, President Obama's grassroots lobbying operation.

OFA's role in the New Jersey fight showed up as the state held a hearing on Friday on its controversial exit three years ago from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, a carbon trading pact. The hearing was called after a state judge ruled earlier this year that Gov. Chris Christie's unilateral withdrawal had violated the rules of due process.

On Friday, members of the New Jersey arm of Obama's lobbying army were busy rounding up participants to attend the hearing and delivering testimony. They were also working the cause on Twitter hand in hand with other advocacy groups urging Christie to reverse himself on the issue.

Until now the campaign to get New Jersey back into RGGI has been carried out mostly by local and national environmental organizations such as Environment New Jersey and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which have fought in the courts, the state legislature and the media.

OFA's involvement sends several political signals. It shows how much the Obama camp is committed to the climate change fight on the eve of midterm elections. It suggests that the Democrats understand that climate action has substantial support, at least among the party faithful. And it illustrates that they are happy to take whatever potshots they can at Christie, a formidable Republican force.

For OFA to get so prominently involved is also a clear signal that the Obama administration wants New Jersey and other states to join regional programs like RGGI—highlighting that cap and trade is the administration's preferred approach for states to meet the EPA's new climate rule for electric power plants.

That is an important substantive point.

At the hearing, Doug O'Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, called RGGI the "obvious way" for New Jersey to comply with EPA's Clean Power Plan, which calls for a 30 percent national reduction in  carbon emissions from power plants by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.

"EPA modeling suggests that continuing under existing policy, New Jersey's power plant carbon dioxide emissions will increase by more than 50 percent from 2012 levels by 2030," he said. "In contrast, if New Jersey were to go it alone under the Clean Power Plan [instead of rejoining RGGI], the state's emissions would have to decrease by more than 30 percent below 2012 levels by 2030. The difference between those two scenarios represents a cut in emissions of more than 60 percent below business-as-usual levels.

"Significant action will be required."

A communications official from OFA, who would not allow her name to be used, explained the group's involvement in an email to InsideClimate News:

"Across the country Organizing for Action volunteers are organizing to raise awareness about the dangers of carbon pollution causing climate change and encouraging their neighbors and local leaders alike to take steps to switch to clean energy as a part of curbing carbon pollution. Our volunteers in New Jersey are speaking out in support of their state being part of progress towards reducing carbon pollution."

Atypical Involvement

OFA tends to get involved only in the president's top priorities, such as his health care plan. It has not always signed on with environmental groups on hot-button issues.

For example, despite the urgings of green activists, including many who had campaigned for Obama, OFA has steered clear of the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline as the administration spent years trying to decide whether to approve the project to bring tar sands oil from Canada across United States.

OFA was initially created as a grassroots election campaign group. After Obama's reelection in 2012 it was transformed to help carry out the administration's policy decisions by increasing public pressure on behalf of Obama's agenda.

Naturally enough, the group firmly supports the president's overall climate action plans. And its members have been engaged to support the EPA's recently proposed rule that would force utilities to clean up emissions under the Clean Air Act.

EPA's rule looks favorably on the prospect that some states will choose to create regional compacts, or join those like RGGI that already exist, as an efficient way of bringing down pollution.

But the EPA has made a huge point of saying that it's up to states to decide for themselves whether to adopt this method or some other approach to meeting tough new standards on pollution.

So technically the EPA and the Obama administration—as much as they approve of RGGI—don't take a formal position on whether New Jersey should or should not participate in the regional program.

For his part, Christie has shown no inclination to get back into the program, which many political observers say he left in order to pander to the right wing of the Republican Party as a potential presidential nominee.

O'Malley of Environment New Jersey said people from OFA had been "very engaged," including during the court case that forced Christie to call the hearing and take public comment on the withdrawal.

Travis Madsen, a national organizer for climate action at Environment America, a coalition of activist groups, said in recent months he too had been encouraging OFA to stay engaged in the New Jersey fight as part of the Obama group's broader climate agenda.

Madsen said the Obama group's grassroots members had responded enthusiastically—especially since the connection between New Jersey's RGGI decision and the EPA's crackdown on carbon pollution became evident this summer.

"I think that they understand that showing the public supports clean power is an important part of the climate action plan," he said.

Mostly though, OFA has been "doing their own thing" on climate change, such as turning out at EPA's listening sessions in support of the proposed new regulation, he said.

At the hearing in Trenton on Friday, those who spoke before representatives of the state Department of Environmental Protection were overwhelmingly in favor of New Jersey's rejoining RGGI.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative anti-tax political group backed by Charles and David Koch, was one group that spoke in favor of New Jersey pulling out.

New Jersey's environmental agency will keep a docket open for public comments for several more weeks.

If the Christie administration does stick with the plan to pull out of RGGI, members of the state legislature hope to use their legislative veto to block the move. One way or another, the fight will drag on for months.

Testimony of Doug O'Malley of Environment New Jersey:

 

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