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‘Uncooperative’ Property Owners Slowing Down PennEast Pipeline Project

State DEP tells company not to apply for permits until it can access private property and verify project’s route

pipeline welders
Credit: Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY
Crews weld a pipeline connecting to a natural gas well in the Loyalsock State Forest.

Fewer than 35 percent of property owners have granted access to their land to the company seeking approval to build a controversial natural-gas pipeline through parts of Hunterdon and Mercer counties.

That lack of cooperation is spurring the state Department of Environmental Protection to advise the company in charge of the project not to apply for some of the permits it needs until it gets more information on the pipeline’s actual route.

Whether that constitutes a serious roadblock for the $1 billion, 110-mile PennEast pipeline project from Pennsylvania to Hopewell remains to be seen, but it has buoyed the hopes of critics. Thirty-two miles of the pipeline would run through four communities in Hunterdon County, before terminating in Hopewell in Mercer County.

The project is perhaps one of the most contentious of more than a dozen new pipeline projects that have been proposed in New Jersey, most aimed at delivering cheap natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formations in Pennsylvania to consumers and businesses.

Much of the proposed route in New Jersey would traverse land preserved with taxpayer dollars to protect open space and farmland, not to mention cutting though wetlands, parks and crossing waterways.

In a letter dated July 2 to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and PennEast, the DEP said it cannot complete a review of land-use or water-quality permits “if the potential impact surveys and mitigation and restoration plans’’ are incomplete.

Given the Christie administration’s and the DEP’s record on promoting various gas pipeline projects, PennEast opponents were a bit surprised, although elated, by the DEP’s letter. The administration views access to cheap natural gas as a way of lowering energy bills in a state that has some of the highest in the nation.

“They never met a pipeline they didn’t like,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. ‘’The reason they issued this letter is because people have not let PennEast on their land. This is a major roadblock.’’

Tom Gilbert, director of climate, energy, and natural resources for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said people are encouraged by the stance taken by the DEP. “It’s a reflection of the fact that there’s tremendous opposition at the local level,’’ he said.

Noting the proposed pipeline would go through 3,000 acres of preserved open space and farmland, Gilbert said, “there’s no question significant environmental resources are at stake here.’’

Patricia Kornick, a spokeswoman for PennEast, denied the state’s position represented a setback for the project, which is being sponsored by all four regulated gas utilities in New Jersey.

“It provides a very constructive roadmap and outlines the agencies expectations,’’ she said. “It is a normal part of the process.’’.

Tittel disagreed with that assessment. “The more property owners who deny access to the land and deny surveys, or revoke permissions you gave them, the better chances we will stop this project,’’ he said.

In its letter, the DEP also strongly urged PennEast to allow the agency to review a draft environmental impact statement prior to submitting any permit application. The company also must identify potentially environmentally sensitive areas that may be a habitat for threatened or endangered species.

Where feasible, Kornick said, the company already has adjusted the proposed route of the pipeline. The company plans to submit a formal application to FERC sometime in the third quarter of 2015, she said.

If PennEast gets the necessary approvals, construction will begin in late 2017, and the pipeline could be in service in late 2018, according to the company.

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