Four former governors who opposed a new natural-gas pipeline project through the heart of the Pinelands have now come out against a controversial nominee to the Pinelands Commission.
In a joint letter, Republican Govs. Thomas Kean and Christine Whitman and Democratic Govs. Brendan Byrne and James Florio urged the full Senate to withhold the confirmation of Robert Barr to replace Robert Jackson on the commission.
The opposition of the four governors is highly unusual since they rarely, if ever, weigh in on nominations by a sitting executive. In this case, it appears to reflect their worries about the future of the Pinelands and the independence of other executive commissions.
“We believe that at this time and in the present circumstances, this nomination would undermine the independence of the Pinelands Commission,’’ the governors said in the letter. The concerns echoed criticism raised by environmentalists last week when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Barr’s nomination — after failing to do so on two prior occasions.
“The Senate can preserve the integrity of the Pinelands program and help protect the work of other independent agencies, by withholding confirmation of this nomination at this time,’’ the letter said.
David Pringle, campaign director of New Jersey Clean Water Action, agreed. “It’s not just the fate of the internationally renowned Pinelands on the line here but basic good government — will independent agencies get to do their jobs or not?’’
Barr’s nomination stalled before the Senate committee on two previous occasions, in part, because he declined to say what position he had on the pipeline. The 22-mile pipe would traverse parts of the preservation area of the Pinelands to deliver natural gas from South Jersey Gas to the former B.L. England plant in northern Cape May county.
His nomination cleared the Senate panel last week when one of the senators opposed to it was absent and was replaced by a colleague who is one of the biggest advocates of the pipeline and who used to employ Barr as a legislative aide.
The project is strongly backed by many lawmakers and business groups as a way to provide greater reliability to residents and businesses, especially with the looming retirement of the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant.
But critics of the nomination welcomed the opposition of the governors. “It’s a clear message from the governors, whether you are (Gov. Chris) Christie or (Senate President Stephen) Sweeney, don’t politicize the Pinelands,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
The nomination is expected to be up for a vote in the full Senate on Thursday.