The state yesterday essentially cleared the way for a new 22-mile natural-gas pipeline, most of it through the Pinelands, a project opposed by conservationists and four former New Jersey governors as a threat to the 1-million-acre preserve.
In a unanimous vote, with one commissioner recusing himself and another absent, the Board of Public Utilities approved the much-contested project, which will deliver gas to the B.L. England power plant in Beesley Point in Cape May County. It will replace a shuttered coal-fired unit.
The vote caps a bitter two-year fight by opponents, who appeared to prevail in the battle when the Pinelands Commission two years ago blocked the proposal when it refused to approve the project, saying it violated the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan.
The project, however, was revived this past summer when the Pinelands staff declared it ‘’a private development’’ that did need not be approved by the commission. That determination left the matter to the BPU, a maneuver, according to critics, that left no agency to enforce rules aimed at keeping the forest, farms and small towns in the Pinelands largely intact.
“Just skipping any new rule on Pinelands compliance allows state government to pretend there is no Pinelands Protection Act for this very big project and other pipelines to come when they are backed by some of the state’s most powerful politicians,’’ said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
The project has received strong backing from the Christie administration, a fact BPU President Richard Mroz acknowledged in noting that it complies with the state’s Energy Master Plan, which supports expanding New Jersey’s natural-gas infrastructure and developing in-state power generation.
Mroz framed the issue before the BPU as much narrower in scope than the environmental concerns and potential impact on the Pinelands raised by opponents. Instead, the decision exempts the project from review and approval of municipal land-use laws by local officials.
[related]In ruling the project is reasonably necessary, Mroz also said the pipeline will allow the power plant to run on a cleaner source of fuel than coal, as well as providing an additional line bringing natural gas to 142,000 customers of South Jersey Gas.
The state Department of Environmental Protection determined the selected route of the pipeline — 19.4 miles of which will follow existing rights-of way — will have the least environmental impact of eight potential routes that were considered. Approximately 15 miles of the pipeline will be under existing paved portions or roadway shoulders within the Pinelands.
The BPU also noted that PJM Interconnection, the regional power-grid operator, projected that if the B.L. England plant were shut, there would be a need for nine new upgrades of transmission lines with a projected cost of $145 million. The majority of the projects would be located in or near the Pinelands.
But opponents argued the project is unnecessary and a cave-in to the gas company. “This pipeline is not only bad for the environment and will undo a successful growth-management plan,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
“Today’s BPU vote only reaffirms the Christie administration’s love affair with natural gas and arrogance at ignoring the increase in carbon pollution from approving another gas pipeline,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.
In the future, it is likely this issue will wind up in the courts. There already is one appeal of a July decision by the BPU approving a modified version of the project, and conservation groups hinted that they, too, were weighing filing legal challenges.
The project is strongly supported by an array of business and labor groups who say it will provide cheaper gas to customers and create new jobs.