The Christie Myth of Environmental Red Tape
New Jersey Stopped Issuing Backlog Report Which Showed No Permit Backlog
Trenton — To hear Governor Chris Christie tell it, long delays and uncertainty in issuing environmental permits are a major factor limiting economic growth in New Jersey. In fact, the overwhelming majority of DEP permits are approved and issued on time, but the public would not know it because the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) stopped issuing its annual report on permitting back in 2007, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Under a law enacted in the early 1990’s known as “EMAP” (Environmental Management and Accountability Plan), DEP is required to submit an annual report to the legislature on permit review timeframes and approval rates. The most recent report showed that DEP approved more than 95% of permit applications, and the large majority was approved within established review timeframes.
These numbers contradicted two central premises of the Christie administration: 1) DEP permit review delays impede economic growth. Governor Christie claims that companies relocate to other states to avoid permit delays in New Jersey; and 2) A low DEP permit approval rate allegedly creates uncertainty which deters investment. Perhaps not surprisingly, the actual numbers never reappeared. When he came into office, Gov. Christie launched a “Red Tape Commission” that targeted DEP permitting and regulations as the key to generating jobs.
“Governor Christie’s principal platform was to fix something that was not broken,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former long-time DEP analyst. “The absence of evidence supporting the premises behind the Governor’s ‘Red Tape’ initiatives is compounded by the suspension of the annual reports, which allow valid comparisons over time. Available DEP permit reports either do not support or flatly contradict the Governor’s assertions.”
Early in his tenure, Gov. Christie issued a series of Executive Orders to cut perceived red tape. Without determining whether these moves had any effect, the Christie administration continued to rail against alleged environmental delays, rolling out a lengthening list of “reforms” including—
- A DEP Transformation Plan, accompanied by a “DEP Vision and Priorities” in which it is made clear that DEP must, above all, be “customer friendly” and promote economic development;
- A “Waiver Rule” allowing any permit requirement to be set aside; and
- “Permit Extension” legislation to eliminate the need to renew lapsed permits. This bill passed both houses of the Legislature and is on Gov. Christie’s desk awaiting final approval.
This parade of relaxations ignored the recommendations of a “Permit Efficiency Taskforce” convened by former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson. Composed largely of industry “stakeholders,” this Taskforce produced a series of technical improvements that the Christie administration never revisited.
“In addition to available evidence that shows DEP approves permits in a timely fashion, there is a glut of permits DEP already issued for projects that have not been built due to economic conditions. That’s why the Legislature just passed ‘The Permit Extension Act’ to keep all of these surplus permits from lapsing,” said Wolfe, arguing that DEP could not logically be blamed for creating obstacles to economic development. “Of course, completely lost in all this streamlining is whether meaningful environmental protection is removed from the equation.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability