New Jersey OKs $300M annually to rescue nuclear industry

Legislation that would authorize $300 million annually to rescue New Jersey's nuclear energy industry — a request for financial help made by the state's largest utility company — was signed into law Wednesday.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy alongside lawmakers at a solar array in central New Jersey also signed a measure aimed at strengthening the state's renewable energy goals. The nuclear measure will be funded by ratepayers; the cost of the renewable energy legislation is unclear.

The nuclear legislation stems from a request from Public Service Enterprise Group for financial assistance for its three nuclear plants, which supply about 40 percent of the state's electricity. PSEG says the plants might not be viable in two years given other cheaper fuels. The company's president and CEO, Ralph Izzo, also points to the nearly 2,000 jobs that would be at stake if the plants shuttered.

"Signing these measures represents a down payment to the people of New Jersey on the clean energy agenda I set forth at the beginning of my administration — a plan that will always consider the best interests of our residents and our environment while growing our economy," Murphy said.

The legislation was bitterly opposed by some environmental groups as well as manufacturers and consumer advocates. They say it's unclear the subsidy is needed.

"Gov. Murphy will shamefully sell out ratepayers and clean energy in giving PSEG the biggest corporate subsidy in state history," said New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel.

Stefanie Brand, the director of the Division of Rate Counsel, which advocates for utility ratepayers, said she's disappointed the governor signed the bill but that she will do all she can to be a part of the subsidy process.

The nuclear legislation comes at a time of uncertainty for the industry at large, with six plants across the country shuttering permanently since 2013, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and as other states consider rescue packages.

New York and Illinois enacted zero emission credits, similar to the ones approved Wednesday by Murphy, in 2016.

Under the legislation, the state's utility operators are charged a fee that residents would then pay. It's estimated to be worth about $300 million for PSEG and at a cost of around $41 a year on ratepayers' utility bills.

The renewable energy legislation contains a number of requirements and changes, including a study for energy storage, an increase in renewable energy production and the establishment of energy efficiency programs.

The nuclear legislation in particular has been the subject of intense lobbying going back to Republican Gov. Chris Christie, whose administration PSEG asked for language to be included to shield its financial data from the public. Under the legislation, which survived under the new law, the company would have to show its data only to state regulators.

Records obtained by The Associated Press also show that lobbyists for PSEG's competitors pushed the Murphy administration to require a process to determine if the bailout was needed before it was paid out.

Those changes were not included in the measure the governor signed.

"As an industry, we've never been against the nuclear subsidy," said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council, one of the lobbying groups. "It's just we feel the way this bill was written there's no guarantee that PSEG won't get a subsidy if they don't deserve it."

Murphy sounded optimistic that the public would have a voice in the process and said it wasn't true that PSEG could get a bailout if it's not warranted.

"I am highly confident that the ratepayer will be represented," Murphy said.

He also signed an executive order requiring an "energy master plan" to be completed in a year.