Enviros say they will fight on despite approval of LNG project

Critics now pin their hopes on legal and permit appeals for Delaware River terminal
Credit: NorthEndWaterfront.com via Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0
LNG terminal on Boston waterfront

Environmentalists were dismayed by the Delaware River Basin Commission’s approval on Wednesday of a plan to build New Jersey’s first liquefied natural gas export terminal but they say the fight isn’t over yet.

Opponents are now vowing to appeal the vote in federal court while asking state and federal agencies to take another look at some permits that have already been issued and hoping that other still-needed permits won’t be granted.

But absent a court injunction soon, it’s not clear whether environmental groups will be able to stop the start of construction of a dock at Gibbstown in Gloucester County, where LNG from Pennsylvania would be loaded on to ocean-going tankers.

New Jersey State Geologist Jeff Hoffman, representing Gov. Phil Murphy on the commission, joined Pennsylvania, Delaware and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in voting to approve the plan. New York abstained after its representative, Ken Kosinski, unsuccessfully proposed that the commission delay a decision pending an analysis of the project’s effects on water quality and climate change.

The vote approved a resolution concluding that dock construction would not “substantially” impair or conflict with the commission’s responsibility for maintaining water quality in the river now or in the future.

A major blow

The decision of DRBC, an interstate water regulator, to give its final go-ahead for construction was a major blow for environmental groups who gathered more than 100,000 signatures from all four basin states calling on the agency to reject the project.

The plan by Delaware River Partners, a unit of New Fortress Energy, would ship super-cooled natural gas from a planned liquefaction plant in northern Pennsylvania via truck or train some 175 miles to the Gibbstown port, which is being built on the site of a former DuPont munitions factory.

The company welcomed the DRBC’s vote. “Delaware River Partners is pleased to have received final approval for the project,” it said in a statement. “This approval gives us the opportunity to continue to invest in and build new infrastructure that will create jobs and provide economic growth in the State of New Jersey and the surrounding region.”

Critics say a round-the-clock procession of trucks or trains carrying the highly explosive fuel would endanger public safety in densely populated areas of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and would harm the environment by dredging the river, threatening rare fish species and disturbing toxic sediment.

They also say the operation will increase carbon emissions by stimulating the production of natural gas at a time when all four basin states are trying to cut their contributions to climate change.

Out of sync with Murphy’s climate policies?

Some opponents said New Jersey’s approval was out of step with the rest of Murphy’s climate policies such as an ambitious target for offshore wind power, and the state’s rejoining of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Delaware River Basin Commission voted to approve a permit to build a port to export liquefied natural gas despite a flood of public comments opposing this dangerous project,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “New Jersey, under Governor Murphy’s leadership has made a commitment to move toward a 21st-century clean energy future, and this decision does not match that vision.”

New Jersey’s Hoffman said the state recognizes the strong public opposition to the project but argued that the commission was voting on the narrow issue of whether to allow construction of the dock, as covered by DRBC’s jurisdiction.

“While New Jersey acknowledges the larger criticism surrounding the proposed operations of this project, the issue presented to the commission is a narrow one — whether or not to affirm its prior decision that dredging activities related to the construction of a second dock at the marine terminal at Gibbstown satisfies the commission’s water-quality standards,” he said.

Hoffman said New Jersey has reviewed a report by an officer who presided at a quasi-judicial hearing held by DRBC in May this year to hear objections to the project. The officer, John Kelly from the Pennsylvania Department of State, recommended that DRBC affirm its earlier approval of the project — which it suspended in order to hold the hearing. Hoffman said New Jersey concurred with Kelly’s recommendations and would vote to approve.

Kelly’s report came before the DRBC at its September meeting but the commissioners voted to defer a decision, saying that they hadn’t had time to read the voluminous record on the case. That fueled environmentalists’ hopes that the regulator would eventually decide to reverse the earlier approval.

River responsibilities

Opposition was led by Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN), an environmental group that persuaded the DRBC to suspend its initial approval of the project in June 2019, and hold the hearing in May this year to give DRN a chance to say why DRBC should reverse its earlier decision.

DRN’s deputy director, Tracy Carluccio, accused the DRBC of abandoning its responsibility to protect the river.

“If the one agency — the DRBC — that is supposed to be prioritizing the health of the river and its watershed over special interests and exploitation and supposed to be approaching their responsibility from a watershed-based perspective has abandoned that mission, the future of the river and all that rely on the Delaware is in the gravest jeopardy,” she said.

“We will not take this lying down, we will continue to fight this project in court and in every public arena possible, united with those who want clean water, air and energy, until we can be assured the river will be safe from the degradation that the Gibbstown LNG export terminal would cause,” she said.

DRN is already appealing permits issued by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and will be following through on its earlier pledge to appeal any approval by DRBC in federal court.

Delaying the LNG project

The nonprofit is also fighting an effort by Delaware River Partners to remove the project from oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. If that effort succeeds, it would require an extensive federal review that would at least slow the project down, Carluccio said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the project still needs state permits under air-quality regulations and the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act. The plan to carry LNG by train could also be stopped by a suit filed by New Jersey and other states against a federal permit to do so, and there are questions about whether some potential export markets will finally allow the import of LNG, he said.

“We lost today but there’s still a big battle ahead,” he said.