Federal Agency Signs off on PennEast Pipeline, Battle Moves to NJ DEP, DRBC

Tom Johnson | April 10, 2017 | Energy & Environment
Even with FERC Environmental Impact Statement, pipeline could face uphill fight at Department of Environmental Protection, Delaware River Basin Commission

Credit: Susan Phillips/StateImpact Pennsylvania
PennEast pipeline
With a key federal win in hand, the PennEast natural-gas pipeline takes its fight to a more local venue, seeking essential permits from the state of New Jersey and the Delaware River Basin Commission.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement for the PennEast Pipeline Co.’s approximately 120-mile conduit on Friday, a step likely to be followed by approval of a certificate of public convenience and necessity once the commission adds a member and gains a quorum.

The approval, coming after a contentious three-year review by the feds, shifts the dispute to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the DRBC, where the $1 billion project faces scrutiny from agencies with many outstanding questions, particularly the impact of the pipeline on drinking water in the region.

“Both could be really significant hurdles,’’ predicted Tom Gilbert, campaign director for ReThink Energy NJ and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “FERC’s flawed review of the PennEast project failed to thoroughly examine the significant environmental impacts the pipeline would cause.’’

In issuing the certificate, the agency essentially repeated the finding in its draft EIS of last year, which found that although some adverse environmental impacts would occur during the project, those effects could be reduced to less than significant levels with steps taken by the company.

“The thorough review conducted by federal regulators assessed impacts on everything from safety to water resources to air quality and wildlife,’’ said Dat Tran, chair of the board of managers for PennEast. “Their finding is a clear win for the region, business competitiveness, economic growth, and job creation.’

In New Jersey, the review process may grow even more onerous despite the pro-energy slant of the Christie administration in expanding the gas pipeline infrastructure in the state.

Division of Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand has said the company has failed to prove the pipeline is necessary, and questioned the subsidies ratepayers would have to cough up if the project moved forward.

The state Department of Environmental Protection also told PennEast not to bother filing for key water and wetlands permits until it had supplied more data about the project’s impact on natural resources. PennEast filed for the two permits on Friday. The water quality certificate needed under the federal Clean Water Act was a permit that blocked a pipeline in New York state when it denied the permit, Gilbert noted.

The proposed pipeline begins in Luzerne County, Pa., crossing underneath the Delaware River in Hunterdon County, before ending in Mercer County. In New Jersey, besides cutting through preserved open space and farmland, it would cross more than 200 waterways.

In addition to facing tough regulatory reviews, foes have vowed to press their fight in court, if necessary.

Lawyers at the Eastern Environmental Law Center and Columbia Environmental Law Clinic are prepared to bring PennEast to courts should the project plow forward. They noted that FERC must still consider whether there is any true public need for the project, prior to issuing a certificate.

“Former FERC Commissioner Norman Bay specifically warned the commission against rubber stamping projects like PennEast just because private applicants say they want to build them. PennEast’s record on needs is a shaky base for its house of cards — expert and agency data should easily topple it,’’ said Jennifer Danis, senior attorney for the EELC, whose firm represents the foundation and the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association.