As expected, the National Park Service gave final approval to a controversial high-voltage power line through three segments of the national park system yesterday, but it will cost the two utilities building the transmission line a bit more to offset the negative impacts of the project.
In issuing a Record of Decision, the NPS upped the amount of money Public Service Electric & Gas and PPL Electric Utilities, a Pennsylvania-based utility, will have to set aside — $56 million — to compensate for adverse effects of the project.
With the approval, the utilities said they will step up construction on the 145-mile line, which is expected to be in service before the summer of 2015.
In addition to improving reliability of the regional power grid, its backers say the new line could save utility customers $200 million a year by reducing congestion on the grid, which drives up electric bills, particularly in New Jersey.
The $1 billion project will follow an existing 85-year-old power line for 95 percent of its route, but the new towers will be more than twice as high as the existing towers.
The NPS approval was necessary because the route traverses about four miles of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and the Middle Delaware National Scenic and Recreational River.
“This new line will reinforce our nation’s critical energy infrastructure for future generations,’’ said Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of PSE&G and Gregory Dudkin, president of PPL, in a joint statement released by the utilities. “It will ensure that homes and businesses in a multistate region continue to enjoy safe and reliable electric service into the future.’’
The approval will be challenged in court by environmentalists, who have argued the line is unnecessary given a drop in energy demand and the state’s push to develop cleaner ways of producing electricity.
“We will be going to court to challenge this give-away of our precious open space,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who noted the club is already preparing its legal challenge on both procedural and substantive issues. “We have been expecting this since the administration fast-tracked the project; we knew the NPS would sell out our national parks.’’
Initially, the NPS, in its draft environmental impact statement, recommended a “no-build’’ option in reviewing the project, a surprising stance since it came out shortly after the Obama administration had selected it as one of seven projects nationwide to be “fast-tracked’’ as part of an effort to modernize the country’s power grid.
“We are discouraged by the electric utilities’ lobbying power to reach as high as the White House, so that the Department of Interior could ignore the 2011 draft environmental impact statement, which found the ‘no-build’ alternative as the environmentally preferred alternative,” said Elliott Ruga, senior policy analyst for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.
While widely opposed by many conservation groups, the project had the backing of the Christie administration as well as business interests, who say it could help reduce energy bills in New Jersey, which consistently has utility rates that are among the highest in the nation.
One relatively new wrinkle is the $56 million the two utilities will have to pony up to mitigate adverse effects of the project. Originally, the utilities offered to spend between $30 million and $40 million, mostly to buy open space adjacent to the park holdings, although some of the money will be used to plant trees and for other measures, according to John Margaritis, director of transmission communications.
PSE&G says the project could create 2,000 jobs during the construction period.
The two utilities have many of the permits required for construction along the route, and have pending applications with federal, state and local authorities to obtain the remaining permits needed. The NPS has said it intends to issue the required federal construction permits soon.