In a highly unusual rebuke, four former governors — two Republicans and two Democrats — have written to the New Jersey Pinelands Commission opposing a proposal to build a natural gas pipeline through the protected Pinelands Forest Management Area.
The joint letter signed by former Democratic Govs. Brendan Byrne and Jim Florio and Republicans Thomas Kean and Christie Whitman expresses concern about a proposed 22-mile gas pipeline beginning in Maurice River and ending at the B.L. England plant in Upper Township in Cape May County.
“The current proposal would compromise the integrity of the Pinelands Plan and serve to encourage future development contrary to the vision the plan sets out for growth and conservation in the Pinelands,’’ the governors wrote earlier this month to Mark Lohbauer, chair of the commission.
The letter marks a possibly unprecedented intervention by former governors from both sides of the aisle in what is essentially a regulatory issue facing a sitting governor, whose office has been aggressively pushing the pipeline proposal.
‘’You never see former governors weighing in on a regulatory issue,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, a vocal critic of the project. “That’s why it is a big deal.’’
The pipeline project gained momentum when the Pinelands Commission and the state Board of Public Utilities released a draft memorandum of agreement pushing the proposal forward on the eve of the Thanksgiving weekend. The commission is expected to make a decision on the project on January 10.
The $90 million project, proposed by South Jersey Gas, has spurred widespread opposition from environmental groups, who held a press conference yesterday on the steps of the Statehouse again denouncing the plan while releasing the letter.
An Ongoing Disagreement
The dispute is the latest in a growing row between environmental organizations and gas and electric utilities over new transmission lines cutting through previously protected natural resources, not only the Pinelands, but also the New Jersey Highlands, which supplies drinking water for millions of residents.
For example, a $750 million, 45-mile high-voltage transmission line proposed by Public Service Electric & Gas crosses segments of three national parks in the Highlands region. Other gas pipeline projects are under consideration or have been approved in the same area.
Most of the projects conform with the Energy Master Plan adopted by the Christie administration, which stresses the need to expand both the natural gas and electricity transmission lines crisscrossing the state, as well as promote the development of new natural-gas-fired power plants. The administration also wants to prevent any new coal-fired plants from operating in New Jersey.
B.L. England’s plant was one of the few remaining coal-fired facilities in New Jersey, a unit many of the same groups opposing the natural gas pipeline had long sought to shut down. Now, they’re objecting to repowering the unit with natural gas — a much cleaner fuel than coal — saying it is still a fossil fuel that will contribute to global climate change.
Most of all, the groups argued that the pipeline project violates regulations written to protect the Pinelands, an argument the four Governors implicitly endorsed.
In their letter, they said the Pinelands program will only work over the long term if the plan is implemented consistently.
“Only then will utility companies, developers, and others in government and industry form their own long-range plans to comply with the Pinelands vision,’’ the governors wrote. “Indeed, the need to set out clear and stable guidance for infrastructure development such as pipelines was one of the principal motivations behind the Pinelands legislation and Plan. For these reasons, we urge the commission to stick to the Plan in this case.’’
The former governors have a huge stake in preservation of the Pinelands, which they described “as one of New Jersey’s most precious resources’’ and the nation’s most successful program “to save vulnerable natural resources in the context of a crowded and vibrant state.’’
Kean, as an assemblyman sponsored the law preserving the Pinelands, a measure Byrne signed into law. Florio, as a congressman, pushed through legislation adding federal protections to safeguard more than 1 million acres of the preserve. He later served as chairman of the Pinelands Commission. Whitman signed into law a long-term stable funding source for protection of open spaces.
The agreement on the letter is striking giving the history of the four governors. In the past, they have been foes. Kean defeated Florio to win his first gubernatorial term. Whitman defeated Florio when he sought reelection after his first term.
A call to the Pinelands Commission was not returned.
Asked to comment, Dan Lockwood, a spokesman for South Jersey Gas, issued a statement.
“This pipeline is necessary to improve reliability for the 140,000 South Jersey residents in Atlantic and Cape May counties and will provide significant environmental improvements for B.L. England generating station by transitioning it from coal to natural gas. The pipeline will run adjacent to existing highways and avoids environmentally sensate areas in the Pinelands Forest,’’ according to the statement.
Violating the Plan
Environmentalists say the project still violates provisions of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan.
“When the commission gives special exceptions for powerful players, it undermines the whole Pinelands protection project and raises the question why anyone should respect its decision,’’ said Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant executive director for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “This will not be the last project looking for an exception to go through the Pinelands.’’
Among other things, the environmental groups were angry at an $8 million payment from South Jersey Gas to compensate the commission and to move the project forward.
“Eight million dollars is clearly selling the Pinelands short,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.