The Christie administration’s efforts to expand the energy infrastructure in New Jersey hit an unlikely setback this past week.
The Pinelands Commission refused to go along with a proposal heavily pushed by the administration and others to build a 22-mile pipeline through the protected Pinelands Forest Management Area.
The fact that the commission, the agency overseeing the protection of the 1.1 million-acre preserve — the largest remaining tract of open space from Maine to the Florida Everglades — balked at the proposal marked a rare victory for conservationists.
They have been on the losing end of a handful of highly controversial gas pipeline projects in the past few years, all of which have been approved. Most of the proposals have cut through lands set aside for recreation and open space with taxpayer dollars. They also failed to block an electric transmission project now under construction, which cuts through three parts of the national park system in the New Jersey Highlands.
Whether Friday’s vote by the commission marks a temporary detour or a more permanent rethinking of where such projects should be sited on the part of policymakers remains to be seen. Two Christie appointees sided with those opposed, resulting in the commission garnering enough votes to put a stop to the project.
The pipeline projects and others reflect the objectives of the state’s Energy Master Plan adopted by the Christie administration in 2011. The plan stresses the need to expand both natural gas and electricity transmission lines crisscrossing the state, as well as to promote the development of new natural-gas-fired power plants.
The strategy is viewed by advocates as helping to lower the high cost of energy bills in New Jersey by taking advantage of huge natural gas deposits discovered in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York.
But the siting of those projects has proved enormously difficult.
“Siting issues relative to energy infrastructure projects is one of the reasons why energy prices are higher in New Jersey than in other regions of the country,’’ said Paul Patterson, an energy analyst with Glenrock Associates in New York. “It’s just not a question of environmentalists, but you have the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) considerations as well.’’
In a statement, Dan Lockwood, a spokesman for the project’s developer South Jersey Gas, said the proposal is necessary to improve reliability for 140,000 of the utility’s customers in Atlantic and Cape May counties.
In the Pinelands case, however, the project energized more than the usual opposition from the conservation community — with four former governors, two Democrats and a pair of Republicans, also urging its rejection in a letter to the commission last month.
“It was huge, both from a public and a political standpoint,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, referring to the letter signed by Democratic Govs. Brendan Byrne and Jim Florio, as well as Republicans Tom Kean and Christine Whitman. “It helped legitimize what we were saying.’’
What they and the four governors were saying is that the project would compromise the integrity of the Pinelands and serve to encourage future development in the reserve, a view echoed by Pinelands Commissioner Edward Lloyd, an environmental law professor at Columbia University.
“This could have opened the door for other projects (in the Pinelands),’’ said Lloyd, a longstanding and well-regarded advocate for the environment in New Jersey.
He also was subject to unusual pressure from the administration on the issue. Lloyd was told to recuse himself because of an alleged conflict of interest involving a letter sent by the Eastern Environmental Law Center asking the commission to hold another public hearing on the proposal.
Lloyd, who serves on the center’s board of directors, had no knowledge of the letter before it was sent out. The center subsequently withdrew the letter, according to the New York Times, which reported on the controversy on Thursday, prior to the next day’s vote. Lloyd did not vote on the issue, but it made no difference since the commission failed to win the necessary votes to move the project forward.
The $90 million project by South Jersey Gas involved plans to build a pipeline from Maurice River to the B.L. England plant in Upper Township in Cape May County, where it wanted to convert one of its generating units from coal to natural gas. The project gained momentum when in late November a memorandum of understanding was agreed upon between the Pinelands Commission and the state Board of Public Utilities.
Lloyd first raised concerns about the project at a meeting in December, questioning whether the agreement would basically grant a variance for the proposal without setting any standards. Doing so, he said, would create a dangerous precedent for other projects to move forward in the Pinelands.
Opponents of the project were not sure the defeat of the Pinelands proposal would transform the debate on energy projects in New Jersey.
“The Pinelands is special. It’s a national treasure,’’ said Lloyd, noting that the state has a 30-year-old tradition of protecting the preserve. “We will face these things again.’’
Tittel, however, said the victory, which he claimed was the biggest secured by the environmental community against actions by the Christie administration, represented a big setback for its “pro-gas’’ agenda. “It emboldens the public to fight back in other places,’’ he said.