Another Pinelands Pipeline Approval, Another Environmental Challenge

New Jersey Sierra Club announces it will appeal the decision to allow the Southern Reliability Link project to move ahead

Credit: Pinelands Preservation Alliance
Colliers Mill Pond Pinelands
The approval of another natural-gas pipeline has triggered yet another legal challenge by an environmental group.

The New Jersey Sierra Club yesterday said it is appealing the decision by the state Board of Public Utilities and the Pinelands Commission to approve a 30-mile pipeline in South Jersey, the second suit to be filed by the interest group against the agencies this year.

Controversy is also dogging the PennEast pipeline, which has hit a new snag: Hearings on it have been pushed off, probably until 2017.

The Sierra Club is challenging the so-called Southern Reliability Link, a $130-million project by New Jersey Natural Gas aimed at boosting resiliency and redundancy of service to most of the utility’s customers.

The project, one of a more than a dozen that are under consideration across the state, is opposed by many conservation groups and some local communities as unneeded. Further, about one-third of its route crosses the Pinelands.

In filing the challenge with the state appellate division, the Sierra Club said the two agencies should not have excluded local communities from having input and review of the project. In addition, it argued that the executive director of the Pinelands Commission should not have ruled the proposal was in compliance with the commission’s Comprehensive Management Plan.

“This decision circumvented a public hearing and further vote by the Pinelands Commission, which we believe is against the Pinelands Protection Act,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the club.

The arguments echo those in another legal challenge filed by the club and other environmentalists challenging a 22-mile pipeline project, also through the Pinelands, that won approval from the BPU and Pinelands Commission earlier this year.

Michael Kinney, a spokesman for New Jersey Natural Gas, said the utility “fully expects’’ the decisions of the two agencies will be upheld on appeal. The company is also before the BPU seeking an increase in rates, which could boost the typical residential bill by 24 percent.

With drilling for cheap natural gas in nearby Pennsylvania, there has been a spate of new proposals to expand the infrastructure for delivering the fuel to homeowners and business, which have seen heating costs drop dramatically in the past few years. The expansion reflects a goal of the state’s Energy Master Plan, which wants to increase reliance on natural gas as a energy source.

[related]But environmentalists oppose the projects, saying they will increase the state’s reliance on fossil fuels and crowd out investments in cleaner renewable-energy sources, such as solar and wind. Many of the pipelines also will crisscross environmentally sensitive lands, including parks, wetlands and farms.

“It is our hope that this lawsuit — among the many others that have been filed against such infrastructure invasions — will put the industry in its proper place,’’ said Walter Helfrecht of People Over Pipelines, a group that is expected to join the suit.

In another controversial pipeline case, the Delaware River Basin Commission yesterday withdrew a request to hold a joint public hearing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on the PennEast pipeline proposal. The project would build a 118-mile pipeline that would begin in Pennsylvania, cross under the Delaware River — a source of drinking water for 15 million people in four states — and end in Mercer County.

Instead, the commission said it will hold its own independent hearing, but probably not until 2017, which means the project faces new delays. All four gas utilities in New Jersey are partners in the project.

PennEast hoped to have the pipeline operational sometime in 2018, a timeframe that may be difficult to achieve given the DRBC’s schedule.

“DRBC’s decision to hold its own public hearings reflects the strong concerns opponents of the proposed pipeline have expressed … and will ensure a process that is fair, more easily accessible to the public,’’ said Caroline Katmann, executive director of the Sourland Conservancy.