DEP Pushes Back Again on PennEast Pipeline

Tom Johnson | October 11, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Agency blocks the 120-mile interstate project from obtaining crucial permits once more
Credit: KIM PAYNTER/WHYY
Making way for a pipeline

The state Department of Environmental Protection has shut the door again on a bid by PennEast Pipeline to obtain crucial permits for its 120-mile interstate project.

In a letter to the company dated Tuesday, the agency deemed the company’s applications deficient, largely based on a federal court’s decision blocking the company’s bid to condemn state-owned lands to build its pipeline (at a projected cost of $1 billion).

The decision marks a new setback in a five-year quest by PennEast to build a new gas pipeline from Luzerne County in Pennsylvania, across the Delaware River, before ending in Mercer County. It aims to bring cheap natural gas to markets in New Jersey and the metropolitan area, but has encountered stiff opposition in both states.

Without the permits, the project is unlikely to be built, at least under its current proposed route, which crosses 49 separate properties owned by the state, most of them permanently preserved for agricultural, recreational or conservation purposes, largely with taxpayer dollars.

“Not necessarily,’’ said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for Rethink Energy NJ, referring to PennEast’s likely appeal of last month’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. “It’s another brick in the wall against this project.’’

PennEast vowed to press forward with the project. “PennEast is confident the legal actions will be resolved favorably and the long-standing legal precedent under which FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) has operated to bring needed, clean, reliable, and affordable energy to consumers will be upheld,’’ said Pat Kornick, a spokeswoman for the company.

“The recent public statements by natural gas utilities in New Jersey expressing serious concerns about the lack of infrastructure capacity and an inability to reliably serve families and businesses who depend on natural gas service, underscores the need and public benefit of the PennEast pipeline,’’ Kornick said.

But critics of the project question its need, particularly at a time when New Jersey and other states are trying to transition to 100% clean energy by 2050. Many environmental groups have urged Gov. Phil Murphy to impose a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects, whether they be new gas pipelines or new gas-fired power plants.

DEP’s rejection occurs at the same time the governor came out on Wednesday night in a call-in radio  show on WBGO opposing a big new gas-fired power plant in the Meadowlands. The agency’s actions signal a possible shift in the Murphy administration’s stance on allowing new fossil fuel projects, advocates said.

“Gov. Murphy and the NJ DEP are to be applauded for standing in defense of the rule of law, our environment, and our communities,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.