PennEast Project Files for Water Permit from State DEP

Tom Johnson | April 7, 2017 | Energy & Environment
Opponents argue controversial pipeline project cannot deliver all environmental data required by NJ Department of Environmental Protection

delaware water gap
The developer of the PennEast pipeline on Thursday filed for a critical water and freshwater wetlands permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection for its project, perhaps one of the most troublesome regulatory reviews remaining for the project.

In filing the application, PennEast Pipeline Co. is seeking approval for the same permit that ended up killing a controversial pipeline project in New York when it was denied. Environmentalists here are hoping to convince the Christie administration to do likewise, effectively blocking the 118-mile PennEast pipeline.

The permit review promises to be difficult given the route of the $1.2 billion project — crossing more than 200 waterways, including underneath the Delaware River.

New Jersey is one of only two states allowed to administer the federal 401 Water Quality Certificate program under the federal Clean Water Act. The state DEP oversees the latter with its own New Jersey freshwater wetlands permit program.

Problems for PennEast

The complexity of the program has created problems for PennEast in submitting all the data sought by the DEP, which, until now, has told the company not to bother requesting a permit until it had furnished all the information requested.

Tony Cox, project manager for PennEast, said the company is “very confident’’ it will be able to acquire the permit. “We have a very good project. We’ve done a good job reducing environmental impacts to where they are very low,’’ he said.

The company decided to file for the state permits today because of a timeframe laid out by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is expected to issue the project’s Environmental Impact Statement today. If it is approved by the commission, it sets off a clock to obtain all other federal permit approvals, within 90 days, according to Cox. The state has one year to review the water permit once it deems the application complete.

“We want to give the department (DEP) ample opportunity to review under the schedule FERC laid out,’’ Cox said. The company is hoping to start construction on the project, which begins in Luzerne County, PA, and ends in Mercer County, sometime in 2018.

Cox also said the company expects to win FERC approval of the final EIS today. The action by the federal agency, while not unexpected, would mark a significant win for the company, which has been struggling to navigate a series of regulatory and legal obstacles for its gas pipeline.

But foes argued that the filing of the water permit application is premature.

“They have little or no data,’’ said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for Rethink Energy NJ and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “They only have data for one-third of the route. The DEP has made it crystal clear not to file an application until they submit all the data.’’

Gilbert said the company cannot get access to much of the route until they obtain eminent domain authority, which they will not have until the FERC commissioners approve a certificate for the project. The commission currently lacks a quorum and cannot issue such a certificate.

Coalition against pipeline

A large coalition of conservation groups, citizens, and communities have banded together to oppose a pipeline that will cross hundreds of waterways, including the Delaware River, and cut through thousands of acres of preserved open space and farmland and through more than 50 acres of wetlands.

Its endorsement by the federal government would run counter to growing public sentiment against the rapid expansion of energy infrastructure in the region, a spurt driven by cheap natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania and neighboring states.

The gas, extracted from the ground by a controversial technology known as fracking, has driven down heating costs for consumers and spurred an economic boom in the region. Fracking involves pumping huge quantities of water and a tiny mix of chemicals into shale formations to drill for the gas. Critics say it threatens the region’s drinking water.

Mired in controversies

Despite enjoying broad backing from business and labor interests, the project has been mired in assorted controversies that have prevented it from moving forward in a timely manner.

Many landowners balked at allowing the company’s surveyors onto their property, fouling up plans to submit crucial data to regulatory authorities. Others, including the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, argued the company has failed to demonstrate the need for the project, one of more than a dozen pending or approved in New Jersey.

Four New Jersey companies are scheduled to be customers of the project, three of whom are investors in the proposal.

Like many other natural-gas pipeline projects, PennEast also has been tied up in litigation. So far, however, the company has prevailed in most cases where a decision has been rendered.