Two Pipeline Proposals Kicked Back to Pinelands Commission

Decision as to whether projects meet commission’s comprehensive master plan likely to shape future of development in million-acre preserve.

Credit: Pinelands Preservation Alliance
Colliers Mill Pond Pinelands
The Pinelands Commission is not yet done judging the merits of two natural-gas pipelines proposed to run through parts of the 1-million-acre preserve it oversees.

In its monthly meeting this past Friday, the commission adopted resolutions setting up a process to determine whether a pipeline pushed by South Jersey Gas and another one proposed by New Jersey Natural Gas comply with the commission’s comprehensive management plan.

Its decisions likely will be viewed as pivotal in determining future development within the Pinelands, the largest remaining expanse of open space, woodlands, and vast water resources on the Eastern Seaboard between Boston and Washington, D.C.

The commission’s moves, taken after a previously unannounced closed executive session, followed a state appeals court decision siding with environmental groups that oppose the 22-mile pipeline South Jersey Gas wants to build to convert the former B.L. England coal unit to natural gas.

Essentially, it appears the commission will schedule a public-comment period, expected to end sometime in January after a yet to be announced public hearing on the proposal. But the commission failed to supply details about how and when, irking foes of the projects, who showed up at the Friday meeting.

“Even now, they can’t do this in any reasonable manner,’’ said Carelton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, one of several groups that successfully challenged the South Jersey project approval. “This agency has lost track of how you do things correctly.’’

The pipeline project is probably the most contentious of more than a dozen pending or approved around the state as part of a natural-gas boom in the region that has led to big drops in heating costs for consumers with the exploitation of new supplies in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. The Christie administration has backed the projects —as have business interests — as part of a goal to expand energy infrastructure in New Jersey.

The South Jersey project would allow the B.L. England plant to convert from coal to natural gas, a step that would avert the shutdown of the facility.

The commission adopted a vague resolution, addressing how it expected to comply with the court decision, which remanded the case back to the agency. In its ruling, a unanimous court said the executive director’s ruling that the project complied with the management plan was improper. That decision needed to be made by the full commission, the court said.

The commission staff did not return a call seeking further explanation on Friday.

Opponents said the steps taken by the commission appear to be “greasing the wheels’’ to approve the project, which previously failed to gain enough votes to be approved by the full commission.

“Why the rush?’’ asked Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, another group that sought to block the project. “This demands a deliberative process.’’

Others who challenged the approval included the New Jersey Sierra Club — and three former governors — Brendan Byrne, James Florio, and Christine Whitman.