State Agency Has Unanswered Questions about PennEast Project

Tom Johnson | January 11, 2017 | Energy & Environment
NJ Department of Environmental Protection says it will withhold permits until surveys of proposed route, environmental impact studies are complete

Credit: Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY
Crews weld a pipeline connecting to a natural gas well in the Loyalsock State Forest.
The state Department of Environmental Protection wants much more information about the proposed PennEast pipeline project before it signs off on any requisite permits.

In a letter to the PennEast Pipeline Company LLC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the state agency raised numerous concerns about the project even as it said less than 35 percent of the 36-mile route in New Jersey had received the required full environmental assessment.

The letter also indicated route changes may be required once the company applies for state permits to avoid impacting critical environmental resources. In addition, it will require surveys over two season to identify rare plants that may be disturbed by the project.

“It is possible that the route may need to be additionally altered in order to minimize temporary and permanent environmental impacts, as required by New Jersey laws and regulations,’’ the agency said.

The concerns suggest the project, already subject to delays, could face new hurdles in staying on schedule, a prospect welcomed by opponents of the pipeline, which would run 118 miles from Luzerne County in Pennsylvania, cross the Delaware River in Hunterdon County, and terminate in Mercer County.

PennEast, however, disputed the state’s characterization of the progress of its surveying, claiming it has approximately 61 percent total survey access. The company anticipates the line will be operational in the second half of 2018, according to Pat Kornick, a spokeswoman for the company.

“PennEast also has conducted engineering studies and desktop analyses, which complement the numerous on-the-ground surveys PennEast has conducted with landowner permission,’’ Kornick said in an e-mail.

The project is currently under review by FERC, which is expected to issue a final environmental impact statement next month, although other agencies besides the New Jersey DEP have asked for additional information from the developer.

“Without question, DEP continues to raise concerns about the project,’’ noted Tom Gilbert, campaign director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, one of many organizations opposing the proposal. “They’ve (PennEast) got a lot of work to do and it will take a long time to do it.’’

Gilbert found it significant that the state agency told the developer it must conduct the survey over two years to identify rare plants that may be affected by the project. “It will push them way beyond their deadline for getting the project in service,’’ he said.

But PennEast countered that the pipeline, according to the federal agency in its draft EIS, can be built while minimizing any adverse environmental impacts, a conclusion disputed by foes.

The developer also needs to refute a contention that the project is not needed to supply gas to the region, a position the New Jersey Rate Counsel filed in papers with FERC last November, Gilbert noted.