A proposed 7.6 mile natural gas pipeline that would cut through the heart of the New Jersey Highlands, including several state parks, cleared an important hurdle last night when the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council recommended the project go forward.
The approval came after a contentious and occasionally boisterous three-and-a-half hour hearing in Chester, where most of those testifying urged the project, the second leg of an expansion of an existing line already approved by the council, be rejected, or, at the least, be held.
The Christie administration's new Energy Master Plan recommends the state expand its natural gas pipelines to take advantage of cheaper natural gas coming from the Marcellus Shale deposits in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York, discoveries that have spurred a wave of natural gas pipeline expansions.
The controversy enveloping the Highlands proposal underscores the increasing opposition facing energy infrastructure projects, especially those that traverse lands set aside for open space preservation.
Many of those projects are going through the Highlands, an 880,000-acre area of woodlands, rivers and lakes, which provides drinking water to half of New Jersey's residents. Opponents of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline project warned that building a new gas pipeline along an existing right-of-way would endanger water supplies, particularly because the route runs up and down steep slopes in the Highlands, increasing erosion that would wash into the watershed.
"I think it's going to be a sad day for the Highlands," said Carl Richko, one of two of the 15 council members to vote against a resolution allowing the project to move forward, contingent on the pipeline company completing a plan to remedy environmental problems caused by the expansion. "I think it's going to come back to haunt us."
In moving the project forward, however, 11 other members argued the comprehensive mitigation plan imposed by the council would ensure any environmental problems caused by the expansion would be closely monitored and corrected.
"The Highlands Council members have engaged in a careful review of this project to ensure that necessary upgrades to utility infrastructure are done in a responsible manner and with important safeguards for our environment and residents," said Jim Rilee, chairman of the council.
Various speakers in the public session disputed that view prior to the council vote. They argued that the project should not have been granted an exemption from strict rules governing what projects move forward in the Highlands preservation area, primarily because the proposal did not reflect an upgrade, but a major expansion of a pipeline.
"This isn't an upgrade," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "It's a new line. It's a larger line. No matter what you are going to require, you are going to see erosion."
"This is going to cause a massive scar across the region," said Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. "It is not what the Highlands was preserved for."
Others argued that the project did not qualify for an exemption under the Highlands Act, which allows "upgrades of public utility lines." Bill Wolfe, a former Department of Environmental Protection staffer who helped write the Highlands protection law, told the council, Tennessee Gas Pipeline is not a "public utility."
That view was disputed by Robert Holtaway, a council member. "Is this a public utility? Absolutely. I believe it is an upgrade. It is going along an existing right-of-way that is already disturbed," he said.
Part of the controversy surrounding TGP's pipeline expansion is that is being driven by efforts to bring cheaper natural gas from the Marcellus Shall formations, into New Jersey and New York markets, a contention that both opponents and advocates seemed to agree on last night.
The ultimate decision on the project rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has yet to make a decision on whether the pipeline expansion is necessary. The council's recommendation to move the project forward now rests with the state Department of Environmental Protection, which can either approve or reject the former's decision that the project is consistent with the Highlands Act.