Federal Agency Says PennEast Environmental Impacts Could Be Reduced

Tom Johnson | July 25, 2016 | Energy & Environment
FERC’s 1,000-plus-page Environmental Impact Statement on proposed pipeline hailed by company as step forward, dismissed by angry environmentalists

Credit: stateimpact.npr.org
The proposed PennEast natural gas-pipeline will result in some adverse ecological impacts, but they could be reduced to less-than-significant levels, according to a draft environmental impact statement prepared by the staff of a federal agency.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Friday issued the long-awaited study, but it did little to quell criticism of the proposed 118 mile-pipeline, which begins in Luzerne County, PA, crosses the Delaware River in Hunterdon County, and ends in Mercer County. Most of the pipeline would be located in Pennsylvania.

The determination that potential impacts — in some cases, long-term effects — dealing with wetlands, endangered species, historic resources, and other facets of the project could be mitigated through steps taken by PennEast and measures recommended by the agency staff was greeted with skepticism by critics, primarily because the company has failed to provide data on a host of environmental impacts.

“It is impossible for FERC to assess the environmental costs of this project,’’ said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for ReThink Energy NJ and New Jersey Conservation, one of many environmental groups lobbying against the project. Its backers say the pipeline will lower costs to consumers in the two states and elsewhere by delivering gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania to homes and businesses.

In a statement, PennEast described the FERC announcement as another ‘’major step forward’’ in the project, which has suffered delays because of its failure to submit information required for regulatory review. “This conclusion brings local homes, hospitals, businesses and schools one step closer to receiving a vital source of reliable, affordable energy,’’ the company said.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement runs to 1,174 pages and assesses the impact of the pipeline, which affects 1,613 acres in the two states. It could affect four groundwater aquifer systems and a few public drinking wells in Hunterdon County, and cross more than 250 bodies of water, including the Delaware River, and 56 acres of wetlands. It would require more than 200 acres of agricultural land for rights-of-way, poses a risk to five endangered species, and traverse 22 parcels of preserved land in New Jersey set aside under the state’s Green Acres program.

“There is no demonstrated need for this pipeline, which threatens some of New Jersey’s most pristine streams and wetlands,’’ said Jim Waltman, executive director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, another opponent of the project.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the pipeline cannot meet federal clean water standards because many of the bodies of water it crosses carry anti-degradation requirements, meaning there can be no declines in quality. New York state recently rejected a pipeline, precisely because of those considerations dealing with degradation in water quality, Tittel noted.

The pipeline is backed by business and labor groups and reflects recommendations in the state’s Energy Master Plan, which calls for a build-out of natural gas infrastructure in New Jersey as a way of reducing energy costs. Nevertheless, the pipeline is perhaps one of the most contentious of more than a dozen similar projects that are pending, approved, or proposed in New Jersey.

The release of the EIS may add to the litigation around the project. Already, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network has filed a challenge in federal court, asserting FERC suffers from a conflict of interest, having never rejected a pipeline project. “It has been shown that FERC is a rubber stamp agency for pipeline projects like PennEast,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

The public comment period on the draft EIS ends September 5. PennEast said it expects FERC to make a final decision on the project in 2017, but numerous other federal and state agencies have yet to weigh in, including the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which has refused to review permits for the project because officials say the application is incomplete.