In the dreary, chilly rain yesterday an overflow crowd jammed a state Pinelands Commission hearing to testify in what could be the final decision next month on a proposed natural-gas pipeline for a Cape May County power plant. The hearing, which at one point had about 100 people waiting outside for lack of space, was divided between those testifying for and against building the pipeline.
With less than 12 months left in Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, supporters of the South Jersey Gas plan to build a 22-mile natural-gas pipeline are pushing hard. The pipeline would enable Houston-based Rockland Capital to rebuild the B.L. England coal-oil-fired power plant as the Cape May Energy Center — and, South Jersey Gas contends, provide a critical “reliability link” to gas customers who now have a single supply pipe to Cape May.
“The line will also enhance reliability for 142,000 customers, including tens of thousands in the Pinelands,” said Bob Fatzinger, SJG’s senior vice president for engineering services and system integrity. “Safety of our pipeline is our most important priority.”
Opponents who have held up the project for three years are just as determined, arguing the pipeline route including 9.5 miles through protected forest area violates a three-decade old policy of permitting such projects only to serve communities inside the Pinelands.
“Electricity demand is down locally. The future of our environment depends on clean, renewable energy,” Tuckahoe resident Carol Jones told commissioners. “The role of the commission is not to produce jobs, but to protect the Pinelands.”
Pinelands officials used the St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church parish hall in the Brown’s Mill section of Pemberton to hold the meeting, with an official capacity around 170 seats. Spectators and those who came to testify — a mix of environmental activists and other opponents, and pro-pipeline representatives from business and labor — were warned they must have a seat or wait outside because of fire code rules.
Commission staffers and state police officers tended the doors, making headcounts as people left and admitting others. In a chill, breezy rain, at one point nearly 100 people waited on the steps and parking lot.
Early in the session a few activists stood in the back of the meeting and began protesting loudly about the limited capacity. “This meeting is a sham! Shut it down!” one shouted.
State police took the group outside, where they gathered under windows of the second-story meeting room and chanted “the people have a voice!” Shortly after 1 p.m., more people were admitted.
Testimony was split between pipeline opponents, who raised objections about the environmental impact and necessity for the pipeline, and supporters who contend the impact is overstated and would be outweighed by economic and energy advances for the region.
“It’s not just about jobs, it’s about technology,” said Jack Koch, a business representative with Local 5 of the International Union of Elevator Constructors. “I didn’t see any horse and buggies here today.”
Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection spoke in support of the project, saying converting the plant to natural gas will give southern New Jersey a cleaner energy source than older out-of-state-generators that affect regional air quality.
State energy planners have said a revamped B.L. England will replace power from the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Ocean County, the nation’s oldest commercial reactor due to shut down by the end of 2019.
Critics contend those power needs are overstated and the regional PJM Interconnection grid can supply it as is.
“Oyster Creek shuts down, the lights stay on,” said Patricia Cronheim of ReThink Energy NJ, a campaign by environmental groups to challenge new pipeline plans. “It’s about profit for shareholders.”
The forum was held amid renewed pressure on the 15 Pinelands commissioners — including letters from four former governors and two former commission executive directors, strongly arguing against the pipeline.
An advocacy group, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, went to a state Appellate Division court last week to challenge the commissioners’ plan for voting on the application. The pipeline plan had previously been approved by Pinelands Commission executive director Nancy Wittenberg, as well as by the state Board of Public Utilities.
An appeals court last year ruled those approvals were not done correctly under state law, and remanded them back to both boards. But the Pinelands commissioners’ response — a resolution that set a public comment period before a likely vote February 10 — is still inconsistent with state law and the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, contends PPA executive director Carleton Montgomery.
“You can’t adopt a new procedure by resolution, you have to adopt it by rule,” Montgomery said. “It just seems like a really blatant violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.”
But both the court and Pinelands officials rejected PPA’s latest attempt to delay the resolution. Commissioners conferred Monday by telephone with the state attorney general’s office, and voted 8 to 5 to proceed with Tuesday’s public comment session.
That vote hewed closely to previous splits among the commissioners over the South Jersey Gas proposal. But since 2014 the balance of power on the commission has changed, with new appointments of members more sympathetic to the pro-pipeline arguments by Gov. Chris Christie and local Pinelands counties.
Executive Director Wittenberg had to be asked to forward recent letters from pipeline objectors who were prominent players in Pinelands history to the commission.
“I was astounded these letters weren’t distributed,” said pipeline objector Glenn Ashton of Bordentown.
In a January 12 letter to commission chairman Sean Earlen, former governors Brendan Byrne, Thomas Kean, James J. Florio, and Christine Todd Whitman reiterated their objections to the pipeline project, first expressed in December 2013, a month before the commission deadlocked in an earlier vote.
“Our concerns are magnified by the fact that the Commission staff correctly determined in 2014 that the project violated the Comprehensive Management Plan, then, after the Commission vote in 2014, simply reversed that determination in order to advance its approval,” the former governors wrote. “This kind of inconsistency, if endorsed by the full Commission, undermines public confidence in the Pinelands Commission, further undermining the integrity of the entire Pinelands protection program.”
Two former Pinelands Commission executive directors weighed in too, along with Robert McIntosh, a former federal representative to the commission. All worked in the formative years of the Pinelands management plan, and urged the board to deny the application in letters last week.
The commission in 1988 amended its rules to make sure that public infrastructure projects, such as power lines and natural gas pipelines, must “primarily” serve Pinelands communities if they are to be allowed in forest areas, wrote Terrence D. Moore, the commission’s original executive director who served from 1979 to 1999.
Moore and John C. Stokes, a longtime commission staffer who succeeded Moore in the top job, got back together to review past infrastructure proposals reviewed by the commission. Both concluded the B.L. England plant and pipeline proposal would fail those regulatory tests.
Stokes suggested the logic of approving the pipeline could lead directly to other future exceptions to the forest areas rules — like pipelines for liquefied natural gas terminals on the coast, power lines, and new highways.
“These may seem unlikely, and perhaps they are, but ten years ago I doubt that anyone thought the B.L. England plant would be converted to natural gas and seek a pipeline through the Pinelands,” Stokes wrote. “If you approve this gas line as a use that is typically permitted in the Forest Area and do not strengthen the Forest Area infrastructure standard … to avoid future abuses, I believe it’s inevitable that you’ll face these types of unforeseen circumstances in the years to come.”
In a response statement, South Jersey Gas officials contended residents and businesses in Cape May and Atlantic counties will benefit from both a secondary supply represented by the proposed pipeline and “locally sourced, lower-cost power” from the B.L. England site.
“The proposed solution takes into account Comprehensive Management Plan guidelines and provisions that facilitated numerous other utility infrastructure throughout the history of the Pinelands Commission. This project is no different and will be serving the needs of the 28,000 customers living in the Pinelands who will benefit from a reliable source of energy” the company said.
“The Comprehensive Management Plan allows pipelines in the Pinelands and has done so since the very first CMP was established in 1980,” according to the company, which operates 133 miles of high-pressure pipelines in the region.
“In reality, this project is no different,” Jeff DuBois, South Jersey Gas executive vice president and CEO, wrote in a recent statement.