By WAYNE PARRY Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey lawmakers wanted to ask voters whether to ban new fossil fuel-fired power plants.

And then they added a loophole big enough to drive a fleet of oil trucks through.

A state Senate committee on Monday advanced a bill that would authorize a public referendum on amending the state’s Constitution to ban construction of new power plants that burn natural gas or other fossil fuels.

But the measure was changed to allow the construction of such plants if they are to be primarily used as emergency backup power sources.

The so-called “peaker” plants would operate only sporadically, including in times of emergency or when the power grid is experiencing stress.

Scientists say the burning of natural gas and other fossil fuels is one of the leading causes of climate change.

Sen. Bob Smith, chairman of the environment and energy committee, began by talking about the urgent need to address climate change.

“We have just gone through the hottest year in human history,” he said. “Texas is currently burning down. Two years ago we had New Jersey citizens dying from (Tropical Storm ) Ida. We are in big, bad, serious trouble.”

But the bill was being amended to exempt backup power plants from the ban. Such proposals are among the most contentious in the state.

Among them is a backup power plant proposed for a sewage treatment facility in Newark. Nearby residents are trying to prevent the backup from being built, saying they are already overburdened by multiple sources of pollution.

Smith said utilities are still too reliant on these backup plants to suddenly ban new ones. (The original bill would not have affected existing power plants.)

“Right now all the experts I talk to say you’ve got to have a peaker,” he said. “The citizens of New Jersey will not tolerate us getting in the way of the electricity they need.”

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said there are 26 power plants in New Jersey that burn fossil fuels, along with two nuclear power plants. The state no longer has coal-fired power plants.

The question is being debated around the country. In 2021, Whatcom County, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Seattle, changed its land use laws to prohibit the construction of new oil refineries, coal-fired power plants, and facilities that transport fossil fuels.

Numerous states have banned coal power plants, and many say they are working toward 100% clean-energy economies.

Yet there is opposition as well. At least 15% of counties in the U.S. have prohibited new utility-scale wind or solar power projects, according to USA Today.

Dave Pringle of the Empower NJ environmental group, said New Jersey’s proposed ban does not go far enough.

“The only projects this will ban will be new gas power plants of a very large nature,” he said. “Clearly, economics dictates that those will not happen.”

In October, a Maryland-based energy company dropped plans to build a second gas-fired power plant next to one it already operates in Woodbridge, New Jersey. Competitive Power Ventures said market conditions had deteriorated to the point where the project was no longer economically feasible.

Anjuli Ramos-Busot, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said existing peaker plants are particularly dirty, adding the ones already in existence should be sufficient for near-term future energy reliability needs.

The most hotly fought power plant proposal in the state is happening in Newark. There, the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission wants to build a gas-fired backup power plant to avoid a repeat of what happened when Superstorm Sandy knocked out power in 2012, causing nearly a billion gallons of untreated sewage to flow into area waterways.

The state’s public transportation agency, NJ Transit, scrapped plans for a similar backup plant last month in nearby Kearny, saying resiliency improvements to the electrical gird made the project unnecessary.

Business groups said near-term energy needs require continued use of fossil fuels.

“It is short-sighted to cut out fossil fuels,” said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey. “Our nuclear plants are 60 years old; you don’t know how long they’re going to be there.”

The bill still needs multiple layers of approval before a referendum could be placed on the November general election ballot.

Smith said the measure will be further amended in coming weeks to clarify that small backup or portable generators such as those used by homeowners or small businesses during outages also would not be subject to a ban.

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