TRENTON – A Senate committee Monday endorsed legislation that would prevent the state from mandating that people or businesses install electric heating or water heating systems.

The prospect has become a major focus of critics of the state’s energy master plan, which emphasizes electric heat as a way to reduce carbon emissions by moving away from home heating oil and natural gas.

There isn’t a mandate in the energy plan, but business interests say Department of Environmental Protection working groups are moving toward it. The EMP does call for incentives to get buildings to switch, and the bill wouldn’t restrict that approach.

“I’ve read the energy master plan, maybe one of the few,” said Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington. “There’s a lot of talk around it, but to my knowledge there isn’t a mandate in it.”

Eric DeGesaro, a lobbyist for the Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey, said the energy master plan doesn’t include a specific date for a mandate but does have a path to a transition that would put fuel companies out of business.

“There’s a vital urgency that Senate bill 4133 is passed by the Legislature,” DeGesero said. “The affordability crisis in New Jersey is real, and the electrification mandate is the affordability crisis on steroids.”

Robert Pohlman, managing director for innovation and strategic initiatives for New Jersey Natural Gas, said his company supports a shift to clean energy but that it has to take into account that $17 billion has been spent to build and maintain an underground infrastructure that is reliable on the coldest days.

“Affordability, reliability, redundancy need to remain the top priorities if this transition is to be fair and equitable,” Pohlman said.

Environmental groups questioned why the Senate Community and Urban Affairs would take up a bill stripping away executive branch authority that isn’t even being exercised, at least not yet, in how to approach a sector that accounts for 26% of climate-change emissions in the state.

“On its face, the bill is anti-environment, anti-consumer and anti-public health,” said Eric Miller, the New Jersey energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“It’s very prematurely and narrowly focused, and it’s shortsighted,” said Eric Benson, state campaign director for Clean Water Action. “We are in a global race to avert the worst impacts of climate change, and we have a very limited amount of time to change course and make a livable climate future.”

Environmental activist Christine Clarke said opponents of the energy master plan are engaging in a “misinformation campaign” in their support of a “fossil fuel sellout bill that would give polluters the opportunity to defeat a still-imaginary foe by prohibiting mandates that don’t exist.”

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The committee advanced the bill 5-0, though Singleton said he hopes lead sponsor Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, works with environmentalists on potential amendments.

Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, said the bill is needed because sometimes the government does stupid things.

“We’re simply trying to avoid … government tipping its hand on the scale and as government no matter who’s running it is inclined to do, make absolute decisions for consumers,” O’Scanlon said. “What we’re saying it, you’ve got to sell it. It’s got to save money.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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