In Iowa this month, Gov. Christie bragged that he had "spent the last five years dismantling" what he called environmental protection "overreach."
The Republican governor's comment, made at an agricultural summit featuring other potential 2016 GOP candidates, reflected a policy of "balancing the need to pare back the onerous regulations and layers of red tape on businesses in New Jersey with a commitment to protect the environment," a Christie spokesman said.
Asked about the specifics of the governor's environmental record, the spokesman, Kevin Roberts, said Christie had restored funding for beach replenishment, opposed offshore drilling, authorized loans for water and sewer projects, and pledged to bar any new coal-fired power plants, among other actions.
But to environmental groups, Christie's "overreach" remark highlighted antagonism toward the environment, on issues ranging from climate change and clean water to policies they say prioritize development over environmental goals.
Early in the tenure, Christie inflamed environmentalists when he withdrew New Jersey from a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions. On other issues, they say, Christie has failed to take enough action, including on a plan to restore the Barnegat Bay ecosystem.
A 'can't lose' strategy
Appealing to Republicans nationally, Christie "can't lose" by criticizing environmental restrictions, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. The base "is both antiregulation and skeptical of the environmental community, not least about climate change."
Business groups applaud Christie for working to reduce overly burdensome regulations.
Under Christie, the Department of Environmental Protection has streamlined its permitting process "to add common sense," DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said. "It's not harming environmental protection. It's just making it more reasonable for people who are regulated."
Political observers say Christie's environmental record doesn't align with those of previous governors.
"He's different," said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "Pretty much every governor who came before him has had one or more major environmental initiatives as part of their legacy."
Weingart, a former DEP official, cited the Pinelands Commission's creation under Democrat Brendan Byrne, wetlands protection under Republican Tom Kean, a statewide bond referendum to preserve open space under Republican Christie Whitman, and passage of Highlands protections under Democrat Jim McGreevey.
When Christie ran for governor in 2009, his environmental platform included pledges to prioritize renewable energy and support a long-term funding source for open-space preservation. In the fall, however, he vigorously opposed a constitutional amendment - which voters ultimately approved - earmarking a portion of the state's corporation business tax revenue to open space.
The New Jersey Environmental Federation - now known as Clean Water Action - endorsed Christie in 2009 over Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who had fallen out of favor with a number of environmentalists. Christie spoke during his campaign of focusing on environmental protection rather than new regulations.
Such rhetoric "can mean anything," said David Pringle, campaign director for Clean Water Action. "It can often mean code for weakening protections. But it also can mean good things. Nobody wants regulation for regulation's sake."
To Pringle and other environmental lobbyists, Christie disappointed after taking office.
In addition to withdrawing New Jersey in 2011 from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative - a cap-and-trade agreement that he criticized as a tax on electricity - Christie scaled back renewable-energy goals. A plan adopted by Corzine had called for 30 percent of the state's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020; Christie reduced the target to 22.5 percent.
He also has used money designated for energy-efficiency projects to balance the budget. Since fiscal 2010 - Christie took office midyear - the state has diverted more than $1 billion from energy-related funds, according to an analysis by the Office of Legislative Services.
In describing Christie's record, Roberts, the governor's spokesman, said Christie had been supportive of renewable energy.
Christie signed a law in 2010 directing the Board of Public Utilities to develop an offshore wind program with tax credits for qualified projects. He also signed a law in 2012 that increased requirements for the amount of solar energy supplied by electricity providers.
While environmentalists have accused Christie of since stalling on renewable energy - offshore wind has not moved forward - some on the right say he has done too much.
Christie "spearheaded a bailout of the solar industry," said Mike Proto, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity.
Christie has also been seen as trying to influence policy through his power to nominate members of land-use commissions.
In the northwest New Jersey Highlands, Christie was able to name a majority of council members charged with overseeing a region spanning seven counties considered vital to protecting drinking water. The council then fired its executive director in 2012.
After the Pinelands Commission voted 7-7 last year to reject a natural gas pipeline proposed to run through 10 miles of the preserve, Christie nominated two members to replace commissioners whose terms had expired and who had voted against the project.
Environmentalists protested that Christie was trying to stack the commission, an accusation Roberts called "baseless nonsense." The Senate confirmed one of the nominees, Robert Barr, earlier this month.
Environmentalists accuse Christie of seeking to weaken the DEP, noting a decline in enforcement actions. Penalties collected by the DEP's Compliance and Enforcement Division also have fallen since he took office, from more than $13 million a year in 2008 and 2009 to $4.9 million in 2014.
"DEP doesn't have the resources to do its job," said Doug O'Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.
DEP officials argued that it had pursued a "more personal and proactive approach" of working directly with businesses to raise compliance. The DEP says its compliance rate, which better measures environmental protection, has risen from 74.2 percent in 2006 to 81.7 percent in 2014.
Hajna, the DEP spokesman, also noted that the majority of the department's compliance team was diverted to Hurricane Sandy recovery after the October 2012 storm.
The DEP's approach has drawn praise from groups like the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.
Michael Egenton, senior vice president for the chamber, said the DEP had gone from "an agency of command and control" to employing "a more interactive stakeholder process" that had speeded up permitting decisions.
Said Egenton: "I've seen a mind-set change."