The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has brushed aside requests to reconsider its approval of the PennEast pipeline, a step that allows opponents to challenge the project in court.
In a 104-page decision issued Friday, the agency denied requests for a rehearing of the project by conservation groups, residents, the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, and others.
The decision, expected ever since a request was filed this past January, led to quick vows to take the issue to the federal courts where opponents believe they stand a better prospect of stopping the 118-mile project.
“It will allow us the opportunity to beat the PennEast project for good,’’ said Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper, one of the organizations that sought a rehearing of FERC’s original decision in January approving a certificate for the $1 billion project.
The Delaware Riverkeeper already has a challenge pending in the federal courts as does the New Jersey Attorney General, but both cases had been in something of a legal limbo because FERC had not acted on multiple requests for a rehearing on its action.
Legal handcuffs are off
“Until now, we’ve had legal handcuffs on,’’ van Rossum said.
The PennEast project aims to bring cheap natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania to customers in the metropolitan areas of New Jersey and Pennsylvania in a new pipeline stretching from Luzerne County, Pa. to Mercer County, outside of Trenton.
The commission narrowly voted 3-2 to deny multiple parties’ requests for a rehearing. They argued the pipeline is not needed to deliver gas to the region, was too costly, and plans by PennEast to condemn land along its proposed route were premature.
As it had in the past, FERC countered that the project serves as a “public use’’ and PennEast could exercise eminent domain. The company is seeking court approval to seize nearly 150 properties in Hunterdon and Mercer counties, as well as another 50 in Pennsylvania.
“FERC’s action is one more in a string of bad decisions against the public interest,’’ said Tom Gilbert, campaign director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which also plans to appeal the agency’s latest action. “FERC is blatantly ignoring the facts that show no public need for the project and the serious threats it would pose to our environment and communities,’’ Gilbert said.
Crucial role for NJ DEP
The New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the Watershed Institute, and the New Jersey Sierra Club are among the groups planning to appeal the agency’s action.
“Since FERC isn’t going to do its job, we will challenge it in federal court,’’ said Jim Waltman, executive director of the Watershed Institute. “It is now up to the courts and the State of New Jersey to protect our environmental resources and the public.’’
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the battle over the pipeline may end up being decided by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which needs to approve crucial water-quality permits for the project.
“FERC is a rubberstamp and that is why it is so important for Gov. Murphy to get the state to deny PennEast’s DEP permits,’’ Tittel said. “Murphy committed to block harmful pipelines like PennEast, he needs to keep his word.’’
Besides DEP permits, the project has yet to be reviewed and approved by the Delaware River Basin Commission.