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Back to Court for Controversial Transmission Line Project

Environmentalists want BPU to rescind its approval of Susquehanna-Roseland.

The battle over building a high-voltage transmission line through three units of the national park system in New Jersey is headed back to court once again.

In a lawsuit filed in the appellate division of Superior Court, a number of environmental organizations are asking the court to order the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) to reconsider its decision to approve the 45-mile expansion of the Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line.

The filing was made earlier this month by Earthjustice and the Eastern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the New Jersey Sierra Club, Environment New Jersey, the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, the New Jersey Environmental Federation, and Stop the Lines.

In February, those groups petitioned the BPU to reconsider its 2010 decision to approve the $750 million project, recently put on the fast track by the Obama administration, on the basis that potential power outages beginning as early as 2012 were unlikely to occur given a drop in electricity demand and other factors.

"This line was never needed and it is needed even less today," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, arguing efforts to reduce energy use and the development of renewable energy sources have undermined the need for the line. "We believe the BPU needs to revisit their decision since things have dramatically changed from 18 months ago."

The project, ordered by the operator of the regional power grid because of potential reliability problems if it is not built, has been staunchly opposed by most of the state's environmental groups, primarily because it cuts through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Appalachian Trail, and the heart of the New Jersey Highlands, the source of drinking water for much of the state.

A portion of the project was held up last year when Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G), the main utility developing the 45-mile transmission line, withdrew permits it was seeking from the National Park Service. At the time, PSE&G said other power projects could maintain the reliability of the power grid.

PSE&G has consistently maintained the line is necessary, however, to prevent potential power problems in northern New Jersey. Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for PE&G, said the utility plans to oppose the motion. "This project remains necessary and there is no reason to go back to the BPU," she said.

The court challenge is the latest twist in an ongoing dispute that has involved the state, the federal government, PJM Interconnection, the operator of the regional power grid, and power suppliers such as PSE&G. Earlier this month, the National Park Service released a draft environmental impact statement, which recommended a no-build option as the environmentally preferred alternative. That decision, however, may very well change when the agency releases its final environmental impact statement in 2013, especially given the Obama administration's decision earlier this fall to include Susquehanna-Roseland in a pilot program to "fast track" certain high-priority transmission projects.

Opponents argue there is no need to fast track a transmission line that might not be needed. They claim energy projections by PJM have decreased significantly since the BPU approved the project. The latest data showing drops in demand also led PJM to pull the plug on two major west-to-east transmission projects similar to the New Jersey proposal. PJM, however, maintains the New Jersey project is still needed, a view endorsed by wide segments of the business community who argue it will help reduce congestion on the power grid, bringing big savings to consumers and businesses in New Jersey.

"The latest forecasts showing decrease in electricity demand are a game-changer," said Hannah Chang, an Earthjustice attorney. "This is new information that the board should have an opportunity to consider so that it can decide whether lower-cost fixes are the better alternative to this multimillion dollar project."

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