Environmentalists say they are hopeful they may be able to stop New Jersey’s first liquefied natural gas export terminal after an unexpected vote by the Delaware River Basin Commission to defer a decision on whether to approve its construction.
Opponents from all four basin states — New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware — scrambled in early September to urge their governors to vote against the plan if it came up at the commission’s quarterly business meeting on Sept. 10. The protests included a petition with more than 50,000 signatures, as well as letters of opposition from some local governments.
The commission’s decision not to place the matter on the meeting’s formal agenda fueled critics’ claims that it was trying to force through an unpopular project without giving the public a full opportunity for comment.
But three of the four governors’ representatives voted in favor of a non-agenda resolution that gave the commissioners more time to decide on the complex and hotly contested matter. The panel also agreed to stay its earlier approval of the project, preventing construction that could have started as early as Sept. 16.
Thursday’s action, taken online, was approved by New Jersey, New York and Delaware; Pennsylvania abstained, and the federal government, represented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, voted against.
The majority of commissioners accepted a statement by the commission’s general counsel, Kenneth Warren, that deciding whether to approve the terminal requires careful weighing of voluminous evidence that was presented at a quasi-judicial hearing on the issue held by the DRBC over eight days in May. Warren said the commissioners had not had time to consider all the details.
The panel’s vote buoyed opponents who had braced themselves for the start of construction. A permit from the DRBC is the last needed for the project, which has already been approved by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps.
‘From lemons to lemonade’
“We went from lemons to lemonade within the course of a few days,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, one of many environmental groups opposing the project. “Last week, we thought this was going to be approved but there were some positive signs over the last few days. I was very pleasantly surprised by what they did today,” he said on Thursday.
The commission needs to consider whether public safety would be at risk from having a round-the-clock procession of trucks or trains hauling highly explosive LNG (liquefied natural gas) through densely populated parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey; whether the operation would stimulate fracking and boost greenhouse gas emissions, running counter to the climate goals of all four Democratic governors; whether the Delaware River’s water quality would be hurt, and whether endangered species of fish would be imperiled, Tittel said.
The delay, he said, will also give the DRBC time to consider the long-term implications of allowing the terminal to be built. “If they agree to one port, there will be 10 more ports, and there will be more and more pressure on them to allow fracking in the Delaware River Basin as those [gas] reserves in north-central Pennsylvania run low,” he said. “They have to look at the overall big picture when it comes to climate change and water quality.”
In 2017, the commission banned fracking for natural gas in the basin but has proposed that frack waste could still be processed in the region, and that water from the basin could be used in fracking operations elsewhere; both those measures are opposed by environmentalists.
Actor Mark Ruffalo, who opposes the project, commended the commissioners for deferring their decision. “Taking the time to review the potential public safety and environmental risks that this dangerous fracked gas project poses is an important step forward. It has given the 15 million people who rely on safe drinking water from the Delaware River Basin a much-needed sigh of relief,” he said in a statement.
Activists representing 133 groups urged the governors to reject the project. They said the commission had failed to consider all the impacts of the LNG port plan, including its possible disturbance of contaminated material on the Gibbstown site, where DuPont made explosives, that is part of the federal Superfund cleanup program. They also argued that the project could endanger the communities of Chester and Tinicum, on the Pennsylvania side of the river, which had no opportunity to comment.
If the DRBC approves construction of a new dock to take LNG tankers, the project would ship super-cooled natural gas as LNG from the Marcellus Shale region of northern Pennsylvania in trucks or trains some 175 miles south to the Gibbstown Logistics Center, a multi-use port on the Delaware River in Gloucester County. There, it would be loaded on to tankers for export.
DRBC gave initial go-ahead in 2019
The interstate water regulator approved the project in June 2019 but then suspended its decision and held a quasi-judicial hearing in May to allow Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group, to argue why the project should not be built. John Kelly, a Pennsylvania official who presided over the hearing, recommended in a 102-page report in July that DRBC affirm its earlier approval.
The developer, Delaware River Partners (DRP), predicted the commission will approve the dock after it has evaluated Kelly’s report.
“We are confident that after the Commissioners complete their review of the record they will concur with the Hearing Officer’s recommendations and reaffirm their prior approval,” DRP spokesman Jeff Sheridan said in a statement. “The project has been through extensive environmental and regulatory review processes and has received approval from multiple federal, state and local agencies. When the project begins, it will provide much needed job opportunities and significant growth to the local tax base.”
Sheridan did not respond to reports that Ireland and Puerto Rico, two of DRP’s potential customers, are banning the import of LNG. If confirmed, that development could force the company to find other markets for the fuel. A report by the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau in August required the island’s electric utility to acquire a lot more power from renewables in coming years, and said it was “unreasonable” to plan for new LNG infrastructure on the island. In Ireland, a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice held that any extension of earlier planning permission for a new LNG terminal in the Shannon Estuary must be subject to a new environmental review.
Earlier, attorneys for the developer argued that Kelly’s report was inaccurate or incomplete on some points. For example, his finding that dredging for the dock would cause a line of salt water to move further up the tidal river was not supported by the evidence, according to a letter from Kate Campbell, an attorney for the company.
The record to be considered by the commissioners also includes comments by commission staff. Those include a rejection of claims that the regulator failed to allow enough time for the public to comment on the LNG plan. In fact, the commission had “more than satisfied” the legal requirements to give public notice of DRP’s application, the staff said.
Now that the commission is taking more time to reach its decision, opponents will continue to press their point, said Tittel of the Sierra Club.
“Any time there’s a bad project, any time there’s a delay, it’s a small win,” he said. “It buys us more time to get people mobilized, to get people to engage and to put more pressure on the governor and others to try to stop this project.”
Whenever the DRBC reaches a final decision on the project, it will be taken at a public meeting, said Kate Schmidt, a spokeswoman. The commission’s next business meeting is scheduled for Dec. 9.