Perhaps they’re just a tough crowd to please, but environmental groups have emerged as the first Democratic Party core constituency to express public frustration with Gov. Phil Murphy.

From diverting clean-energy money and other funds to the tune of more than $400 million in the proposed budget, to signing a law propping up PSE&G’s nuclear plants, to an indication another bear hunt is possible this fall, there’s a long list of grievances Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club called troubling.

“It’s not like we’re asking for the sky. We’re just asking him to keep his word,” Tittel said.

Tittel said those policies reverse campaign pledges and transition plans.

“These are not us asking him for grandiose new things,” Tittel said. “These are things that this administration had committed to that they’re now saying one thing and doing the other on.”

Murphy’s office says he’s committed to protecting the environment, though the governor told Politico New Jersey last month that environmental groups aren’t wrong to say he’s broken some campaign promises.

For instance, Tittel said the administration’s tack on the ExxonMobil settlement approved in 2015 by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration is “most disturbing.”

The state’s initial natural resources damages claim sought $8.9 billion. The case was settled for $225 million, a level Murphy criticized as a candidate. Now the administration is trying to block the Sierra Club from intervening in the case before the Supreme Court.

Moreover, the Murphy administration plans to divert $125 million from the settlement to the state’s general fund, despite a 2017 constitutional amendment approved by voters that requires environmental settlements to be spent on environmental programs. Fifty million dollars would be spent on such efforts, with the other $50 million needed to pay lawyers who worked on the decade-long litigation.

Murphy, last week in South Brunswick, said the Exxon settlement came in before the amendment. He says it’s not how he wants things to be going forward but that his administration was “dealt a lousy hand” with the budget.

“So it’s not ideal. We’re doing the best we can. Rome wasn’t built in a day, or in this case rebuilt in a day,” Murphy said.

Tittel said that’s a technicality because the money is in escrow and hasn’t been received and that his organization will sue if the money is diverted.

“We know we have a deep financial hole in New Jersey. But we also know there are ways of fixing that problem without turning the environment into your ATM and a cash cow,” Tittel said.

At the Department of Law and Public Safety’s hearing before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal defended the settlement.

Grewal said unwinding a settlement upheld by two courts could expose the state to further costs and that career lawyers, not political appointees, negotiated the settlement. He also said Exxon could spend billions of dollars more to clean a creek it polluted.

“When we take into account the amount of the settlement, the fact that the cleanup costs are separate and apart from what’s recovered here, that $225 million, based on everything I’ve looked at to date, is a good settlement for this state,” Grewal said.

Even environmental wins like rejoining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to combat emissions blamed for causing climate change have Doug O’Malley, state director of Environment New Jersey, questioning why the process will take so long.

“We need strong action by DEP, and right now, we’re missing out,” O’Malley said.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at

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