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FERC OK of PennEast Doesn't Make Pipeline a Sure Thing

Federal approval means pipeline company can gather environmental data needed for permits, but opponents vow they will continue to fight

pipeline clearing
Credit: KIM PAYNTER/WHYY

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval of the PennEast pipeline late Friday marks a significant victory for its backers, but the company still needs to secure a slew of federal and state permits before the project moves forward.

In a 4-1 decision, the commissioners issued a 108-page order approving its construction, saying the benefit of the $1 billion project outweighed any adverse effects, including environmental impacts, but those could be reduced to acceptable levels.

The approval, pending before the agency for more than three years and held up for a variety of factors, is crucial to the company because in granting the project a certificate it gives it the right to access private property along the route that was previously denied by owners.

With access to those lands, the company plans to begin gathering the environmental field data it needs to file complete applications for requisite permits, including a crucial water-quality permit from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Sixty-eight percent of the route has yet to be surveyed, according to FERC's order.

The approximately 120-mile pipeline, which begins in Luzerne County, PA, and ends near Pennington, is one of the most contentious of more than a dozen new gas pipeline projects that have emerged with the discovery of cheap natural-gas supplies in Pennsylvania.

PennEast claims 'major victory'

"Approval of the PennEast pipeline is a major victory for New Jersey and Pennsylvania families and businesses,'' said Anthony Cox, chair of the PennEast Pipeline Co. LLC board of managers. "They will reap the benefits of accessing one of the most affordable and abundant supplies of natural gas in all of North America.''

But opponents said the approval was all but preordained given FERC's history of rubberstamping energy projects. Foes pointed out Commissioner Richard Glick, the lone dissenting vote, agreed with critics by saying "there is limited evidence of the need for the proposed project.''

"From a lack of need to its devastating impact on the environment to the demonstrated false, misleading and missing information provided by the PennEast companies to FERC, there is no way to support approval of this project,'' said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

Permits pending

The project still requires a host of permits beyond the one from the DEP, including from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Delaware River Basin Commission.

"Now, the real environmental review begins - the ones that FERC did not do,'' said Tom Gillbert, campaign director of ReThink Energy NJ and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. He particularly cited the state's authority in issuing a 401 permit under the Clean Water Act.

"We don't see any way this pipeline can be built and meet those standards,'' said Gilbert, noting the route of the project crosses 38 C-1 streams, the most pristine in the state. "If they enforce regulations, this project won't pass muster.''

But project proponents argue the need for the pipeline is clear. They argue access to additional natural-gas supplies via PennEast will reduce the cost of gas in both Pennsyvlania and New Jersey, even during nonpeak periods.

"This is a big win for New Jersey businesses, particularly energy-intensive sectors such as manufacturing, to have a long-term, reliable, and affordable fuel supply that makes the region more attractive for business growth and jobs,'' said Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

After the FERC decision, the company updated its estimated in-service date to 2019, with construction still beginning in 2018.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, discounted that time table "The real battle begins now and we think we can win.''

One dynamic has changed for the project. The Christie administration enthusiastically backed the expansion of natural-gas infrastructure in New Jersey. Gov. Phil Murphy, in office less than a week, campaigned on a platform promoting a clean agenda, and is likely to be less supportive of such proposals.

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