A historic decision to ban fracking for natural gas in the Delaware River Basin is raising new questions about plans for a South Jersey dock where fracked gas would be exported in liquid form.
On Feb. 25, Gov. Phil Murphy and the governors of Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware voted at the Delaware River Basin Commission to formally block the controversial process of harvesting natural gas, on the grounds that it would endanger water supplies for some 15 million people in the basin. Murphy’s vote on that ban is prompting opponents of the dock to ask whether they now have a better chance of stopping the project that he has so far supported.
Critics argue that building the dock at Gibbstown in Gloucester County would be at odds with the new policy made explicit in that vote because it would stimulate the production of fracked gas that could contaminate drinking water and add to greenhouse gas emissions even though the gas would be coming from northeastern Pennsylvania outside the Delaware River Basin.
And the fracked gas would be transported in a round-the-clock procession of trucks or trains in a region that has finally rejected the technique of harvesting natural gas, which has been blamed for tainting water with toxic drilling chemicals, and industrializing many rural areas where gas wells are built.
If successful, the port project would provide new global market access for the abundant gas reserves of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, one of the richest gas fields in the world, whose development since the mid-2000s has been hindered by low prices and a shortage of pipelines. The Pennsylvania gas would be sold in liquid form to overseas markets, especially in Asia, where prices are much higher than in the U.S.
The price of U.S. liquefied natural gas exports was near a five-year high in December but was still at less than half its level during the years 2009-2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Murphy already voted to approve the terminal
Opponents of the Gibbstown project are fighting an uphill battle since the DRBC commissioners, including Murphy, voted in December to approve construction of the dock where liquefied natural gas (LNG) would be transferred from trucks and trains to ocean-going tankers.
The DRBC’s green light was an important step forward for the project, which has also obtained some state and federal permits, forcing opponents to appeal through the courts. In a major setback for critics, the regulator affirmed its earlier approval of the project after a quasi-judicial hearing last May to hear the objections of Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN), an environmental nonprofit that has led opposition to the Gibbstown plan.
The potential use of trains to ship super-cooled gas from a planned liquefaction plant in Wyalusing, Pa. to Gibbstown some 175 miles away was approved by a federal regulator in the first national permit to transport LNG by rail.
Critics say public safety would be at risk from trucks or trains carrying highly explosive LNG through densely populated parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. According to the federal pipeline regulator, PHMSA, 22 railcars filled with LNG would contain the energy equivalent of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima during the Second World War.
Opponents are pinning some of their hopes on Murphy, who confused observers late last year by saying he would work to “prevent” the transportation of LNG at Gibbstown only two weeks after voting as one of the DRBC commissioners to approve construction of the dock.
To follow through on his promise to prevent LNG transportation, Murphy could instruct the Department of Environmental Protection to withdraw its Waterfront Development Permit, and to deny two other permits that the project still needs, said Tracy Carluccio, Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s deputy director.
The DRN says the waterfront permit should be withdrawn because the DEP failed to consider the Gibbstown plan as an energy project.
If he’s considering overturning the approvals, Murphy might also feel empowered by the Biden administration which, unlike its predecessor, has set aggressive climate goals and banned new fracking on federal lands, Carluccio said.
But she and other critics are waiting for a clear signal from Murphy, who has also set aggressive targets for switching the state to clean energy and has especially promoted offshore wind as a key to generating emissions-free power.
Waiting for Murphy to ‘walk the talk’
“He might say, ‘We don’t want to support fracking no matter where it is because by allowing the export of LNG it induces more fracking,’” Carluccio said. But she said Murphy has yet to explain how he could block LNG transportation at the dock after voting in favor of its construction.
“We haven’t seen him walk the talk, so it is mysterious until that happens,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Murphy did not respond to a new request for clarification of his comments.
Rich Raiders, an environmental and land-use attorney in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, said whatever the basis of Murphy’s Gibbstown decision — whether climate change, public safety or its effect on endangered species in the Delaware River — it’s likely to be justified differently from the DRBC fracking vote, which the governors based on water quality. “New Jersey will take a serious look at the potential risks associated with a facility such as this proposed terminal,” he said. “This governor may or may not reject this project.But not likely for the same reasons as the DRBC voted for the fracking ban.”
The Gibbstown developer, Delaware River Partners, did not respond to several requests for comment.
But the company is trying to ensure that its project is not subject to oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an agency that could require an extensive review, and so delay the start of operations.
In a letter to that commission last September, lawyers for Delaware River Partners argued that the project is not subject to FERC jurisdiction under two sections of the federal Natural Gas Act, and they urged the agency to issue a declaratory order saying so. It said FERC staff told it that the plan was “non-jurisdictional.”
The environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network in its own submission to FERC, urges the agency to deny the company’s petition and to determine whether the Gibbstown project is in the public interest, as required by the natural gas law.
“DRP asks the commission to ignore Congress’s command … and look the other way while DRP and its affiliates transport natural gas in interstate commerce and export natural gas in foreign commerce without a certificate of public interest and necessity, and contrary to the public interest,” the environmental group said.
No decision from federal agency
A FERC spokeswoman declined to say when the agency might decide on the matter, or what the consequences might be for either party. Under the Biden administration, the agency is now chaired by Richard Glick, a Democrat who often dissented from decisions issued by the previous Republican majority.
Meanwhile, in a sign of increasing activity at the multi-use Gibbstown port, a DRP affiliate said the first shipment of liquefied petroleum gas, a mixture of propane and butane, had been loaded onto a tanker at a dock adjoining the site where LNG would be transferred.
Fortress Transportation and Infrastructure said in a press release in January that the gas, a by-product of natural gas, had been loaded using a “state of the art rail-to-ship loading system.”
For now, construction can’t begin until at least Sept. 15 — a condition written into the permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — because it would disturb the breeding season of the Atlantic sturgeon, a federally endangered fish species whose distinct Delaware River population has dwindled to an estimated 300.
“If it were to be made extinct, it would be the last on earth,” Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s Carluccio said.