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NJ Could Ask Feds to Rethink Policies on Siting Interstate Pipelines

Laws governing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission date back to 1938, too old to deal with aggressive pipeline expansion, critics claim

pipeline clearing
Credit: KIM PAYNTER/WHYY
A pipeline construction site in Northeast Pennsylvania.

Amid a growing outcry against the expansion of natural-gas pipelines, a New Jersey legislator wants to press the federal government to revamp the laws governing approval of interstate energy projects.

Assemblywoman Elizabeth Muoio (D-Mercer) is sponsoring a resolution (ACR-53) to be considered by a committee on Thursday that urges the president and Congress to reassess federal laws dating back to 1938 that give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission broad authority in siting pipeline infrastructure.

The proposal is being advanced at a time when at least 15 new gas pipeline expansions or projects have been either approved or are under review in New Jersey, a trend that has sparked wide opposition around the state.

The federal review process for the projects, most tapping into vast new supplies of natural gas found in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the Northeast, fails to adequately balance competing policy considerations, according to critics.

Most notably, the review does not adequately protect the state’s other natural resources, they say, often traversing open spaces and farmland already set aside with taxpayers’ money. Many of the projects also cross rivers, streams, wetlands, and other environmentally sensitive areas, they argue.

The concerns mirror issues raised by a coalition of conservation and other organizations earlier this year when they asked two U.S. senators to urge the General Accounting Office to conduct an independent investigation of FERC. The groups argued that the federal agency is biased toward the energy sector, citing its 100 percent approval rate of pipeline projects to come before it.

The resolution, before the Assembly Telecommunications and Communications Committee, echoes that concern saying “unfortunately the FERC approval process has become a rubber stamp approval for the natural gas industry.’’

The expansion of the energy infrastructure is strongly supported by labor and the business community, as well as by the Christie administration. The new, cheaper supplies of natural gas have sharply lowered heating costs for consumers and reduced expenses for manufacturers, many of whom rely on the fuel for day-to-day operations.

Muoio’s district is the proposed site of one of the more controversial projects, the PennEast pipeline, a 118-mile pipeline that would run from Luzerne County in Pennsylvania under the Delaware River into Hunterdon, before ending in Mercer County.

Her resolution criticizes FERC for failing to consider a wide range of potential environmental effects from the projects, including “cumulative impacts.’’

Increasingly, opponents of the pipelines raise concerns that by failing to consider all of the projects awaiting approval, the consumer could end up paying in the future for pipelines that are no longer needed -- given the shift to cleaner sources of energy and less reliance on fossil fuels like natural gas advocated by those worried about climate change.

Resolutions are not binding, but typically reflect public perceptions and concerns about emerging issues. In this instance, it amounts to recognition by foes of the pipelines that the important decisions determining energy policy are made at the national level.

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