South Jersey was in the eye of the storm for lobbying in New Jersey in 2018, with two of the three biggest drivers of spending — nuclear plants and offshore wind energy producers — focused here.
A report released Monday by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission said spending for and against ratepayer subsidies for nuclear plants drew the largest amount of spending at $5 million, which was about what they spent last year as well.
Firms hoping to install wind turbines off the New Jersey coast increased spending 234 percent from $261,664 in 2017 to $874,679 in 2018; and businesses and groups that support or oppose legalization of recreational marijuana increased spending 313 percent from $330,935 in 2017 to $1,365,362 in 2018.
While overall spending on lobbying — the practice of attempting to influence government — was down slightly from 2017’s record spending to $89.4 million, annual reports filed with the ELEC showed expenditures rose substantially in areas in which the Legislature is making decisions that could make or break companies.
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The state’s remaining nuclear plants — Salem I, Salem II and Hope Creek, owned by Public Service Enterprise Group — are on the Delaware River in Salem County. Exelon, the owner of Atlantic City Electric and of the now-closed Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Lacey Township, holds a minority interest in one of them.
About 45 percent of the $5 million went to lobby on behalf of the nuclear subsidies, at $2.3 million, and about 55 percent was spent to oppose them, at $2.8 million.
Legislation to create a subsidy program passed the Legislature and was signed into law last year by Gov. Phil Murphy, as a way of keeping nuclear energy — which does not release greenhouse gases believed to contribute to climate change — in the state’s generation mix.
PSEG spent the most lobbying on the issue. It spent almost $1.5 million in 2018 and almost $2.4 million in 2017. It was followed by First Energy/Jersey Central Power & Light and Exelon Generation Co.
The owners of Salem County’s nuclear power plants — the last still operating in the state — …
“The ELEC report shows the majority of our spending was for public education — to increase public awareness of the many benefits that nuclear energy provides,” said PSEG spokesman Michael Jennings. “At the start of the discussion, few people were aware of the environmental, reliability and economic benefits the plants provide.”
Those lobbying against the subsidies, such as the AARP and the NJ Coalition for Fair Energy, spent much less individually, but there were more entities participating.
Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, called lobbying a vital and fundamental part of democracy.
Michael Klein, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, said the lobbying report shows how Murphy’s priorities of alternative energy and recreational marijuana have caused those issues to heat up.
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“Yes, they are advocates for their point of view, but they add a lot of information for legislators and other policymakers to weigh at the end of the day,” said Klein.
The state Board of Public Utilities is reviewing financial documents provided by the owners of nuclear plants to see whether they will close within three years without the subsidies. If they are found to be likely to close, the BPU will approve the subsidies, which could cost ratepayers up to $300 million a year.
The BPU is expected to make a decision on the subsidies, estimated to cost the average residential customer $31 to $41 a year, at its April 19 meeting.
Orsted, which is seeking state subsidies to build a wind farm off Atlantic City, was the biggest spender on offshore-wind lobbying at $300,000, up from $158,000 last year. It was followed by Deep Water Wind, which merged with Orsted at the end of last year and also holds a lease for a wind farm off Atlantic City, at $90,000; Equinor, which holds a lease off North Jersey, at $30,000; and the industry group American Wind Energy Associates at $24,000.
Fishermen’s Energy, which lost its bid for ratepayer subsidy of a small offshore wind farm in state waters off Atlantic City last year, spent $18,600.
The BPU is expected by July 1 to choose a firm or firms to begin building 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind electric generation. Murphy wants the state to reach 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind generation by 2030.
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