Environmental Coalition Moves to Block Natural Gas Pipeline

Tom Johnson | January 23, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Transco project involves drilling under Raritan River, source of drinking water for some 1 million people

In a reflection of the growing opposition to the expansion of energy infrastructure projects, a coalition of New Jersey environmental groups is seeking to intervene in a case involving a natural gas pipeline through northern New Jersey.

The groups are seeking to intercede in the proposed Northeast Grid Supply project by the Transcontinental Gas Pipeline (Transco), which is seeking approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to deliver cheap natural gas into the metropolitan area from the Marcellus Shale formations in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York.

The project is essentially what the Christie administration envisioned when it unveiled a revamped Energy Master Plan, which emphasizes bolstering natural gas and electric transmission systems as a way of lowering energy bills in the state.

But the $345 million project, like others proposed by energy companies, has evoked widespread opposition because it traverses an environmentally sensitive area: drilling underneath the South Branch of the Raritan River, the source of drinking water to more than 1 million people.

As in other cases where energy expansion projects have been opposed, the coalition questions, in a filing with the federal agency, the necessity of the project, noting the supply of natural gas is steadily increasing, largely as a result of drilling in the Marcellus Shale, while demand for the fuel “is remaining flat.’’

That view, however, is contrasted by recommendations in the state’s energy plan, which encourages the building of new gas-fired power plants, as well as combined heat and power facilities that produce electricity and steam simultaneously. The plan also suggests that companies with fleets of their own vehicles consider switching from diesel fuel to trucks powered by compressed natural gas.

The opposing organizations — the New Jersey Sierra Club, the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, Fight the Pipe, and Food and Water Watch –also argue that sufficient infrastructure exists to meet natural gas demand.

They noted that one link of a natural pipeline expansion project has just been completed, while three other applications, including the Northeast Upgrade project, are before FERC. If all are approved, it will increase the capacity of New Jersey’s pipeline system by 25 percent, they argued.

“We don’t have a national energy policy,’’ lamented Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “For every pipeline, it’s first come, first served.’’

Transco filed a formal application with the federal agency in December. The agency is currently reviewing the project, which would install close to seven miles of new pipeline in Union, Franklin, and Clinton Townships and modify 25 miles of existing pipeline in Essex, Passaic, and Bergen Counties.

Beyond the pipeline expansion, the coalition of environmental groups also argued the project would lead to more hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,’’ a controversial drilling method used to extract natural gas that involves injecting millions of gallons of water into the well.

“Due to an increase of fracking wells in the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania, we are seeing an increase in pipeline projects through the Highlands,’’ said Erica Van Auken, campaign coordinator for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. The coalition is urging the agency to review the cumulative impact of these projects on the Highlands, Van Auken said.

In addition to the environmental groups, resolutions opposing the pipeline project have been passed by several communities along the proposed right-of-way, including Clinton Township, Union, Readington, Nutley, and Ridgefield, as well as Hunterdon County.

Other energy infrastructure projects are facing similar hurdles winning approval in the nation’s most densely populated state. Earlier this month, FERC delayed issuing its final environmental impact statement on a project by Spectra Energy to expand a pipeline 16 miles from Staten Island to Jersey City and back into New York City, an initiative that has sparked much criticism in the Hudson County community.

Also, last week, Public Service Electric & Gas and another utility seeking to expand a transmission line from Pennsylvania into New Jersey through the heart of the Highlands offered to spend up to $30 million to buy open space to offset harm that the project might have on the environment.