Op-Ed: A Cascade of Travesties

Michael Heffler | June 18, 2018 | Opinion
PennEast hacks an unconscionable pipeline-review process

Michael Heffler
When it comes to deciding if we have enough pipeline infrastructure, it’s clear that the federal agency in charge of reviewing pipeline development is incapable of determining when “enough is enough.”

PennEast says that New Jersey needs the gas its pipeline will supply, but PennEast has a long track record of obfuscating the facts surrounding this pipeline. The real rationale for the pipeline is that PennEast’s private owners would receive a guaranteed 14 percent annual profit for 15 years if the project is built. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s ratepayers foot the bill and shoulder the load of the pipeline’s other consequences, including higher emissions, tearing up private property, and damage to our waterways and preserved open spaces.

That’s far from fair to the honest, hardworking citizens of our state.

PennEast “faked” the market demand for its gas by selling the planned capacity to its own affiliate companies, which include New Jersey Resources, South Jersey Industries, Southern Company Gas, Spectra Energy Partners, and UGI Energy Services. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission didn’t look at the SEC filings of those five companies, which state plainly that they have enough gas from existing pipelines to meet the demands of the New Jersey market through at least 2030. FERC also didn’t listen to the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, the state’s consumer watchdog. The rate counsel said that PennEast would be “unfair to consumers,” and that if FERC approved the pipeline it would like “winning the lottery” for the five companies behind in PennEast.

Seems to me that we should heed the independent rate counsel’s critical warning instead of trusting this self-serving shell company.

Woefully incomplete certificate

FERC conditionally approved PennEast, but the “certificate” FERC issued was deemed so woefully incomplete that it is being challenged by the state attorney general, among others. PennEast has not surveyed more than 65 percent of the pipeline route in New Jersey. So how could FERC possibly have conducted an accurate assessment of the project’s environmental impacts?

The answer is, they didn’t. FERC rubber-stamped an unneeded, polluting pipeline.

FERC’s certificate giving PennEast eminent domain puts thousands of acres of preserved and private properties at risk. The owners of those lands, which include not only individual landowners but also the State of New Jersey itself, must now defend their property rights in court against seizure.

Why should homeowners allow their land to be torn up and trespassed on when the pipeline has yet to be approved? The pipeline needs permits from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Delaware River Basin Commission before construction can begin.

What other recourse do these landowners have? Appeal FERC’s decision, perhaps?

Not so fast. When FERC’s decisions are questioned, it predictably issues a Tolling Order, an administrative response designed to thwart criticism of its process. It states that FERC will consider the opinion of others whenever the agency gets around to it — which, historically, has been after the pipeline is built.

That’s cold comfort for the private citizen whose land is seized.

A fair deal?

PennEast claims it has tried to provide landowners along its proposed route with a fair deal. In reality, signing a contract with PennEast would grant the company unhindered use of these properties, including building multiple pipelines or cell towers.

The majority of the landowners in New Jersey have refused PennEast access to their land because they don’t want their land to be torn up for a pipeline that is not approved and not needed.

In April, these defendants argued against PennEast’s right to take land through eminent domain in state District Court, noting that they had asked PennEast for more detail about how it planned to use their land months ago, with no response to date.

In a free-market economy and a society that respects the sanctity of private property, FERC’s practices warp the market, put citizens at risk from senseless environmental risks, and violate personal property rights.

This is not what we expect from our federal government. Who is looking out for the public good? Instead of fighting PennEast, we should be discussing where the five companies behind the proposed pipeline should be placing solar panels.

I am encouraged by the New Jersey attorney general’s actions fighting these condemnation lawsuits against PennEast, and I encourage the state to continue to stand strong against PennEast and ultimately reject this unneeded project that continues to cause suffering to New Jersey citizens based upon a flawed Federal process.