In a narrow 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court revived the 116-mile PennEast gas pipeline project, overturning a lower court’s decision that blocked the company from condemning state-owned land in New Jersey to move the project forward.
The decision released Tuesday could make it easier for new pipeline projects to be built despite efforts by states and environmentalists to block them, a strategy largely driven by fears that increasing emissions from fossil fuels will quicken the pace of climate change in an already global-warming planet.
But the $1 billion project, first proposed more than seven years ago, still faces big challenges — both in the courts and with regulatory agencies — before building can begin on the pipeline designed to deliver cheap natural gas from the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania to New Jersey.
Big win for PennEast
Still, it was a significant win for PennEast, which has encountered a number of unexpected delays in pursuing the project in the courts and from regulatory agencies, including the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which has twice denied permits for the project.
“It would have been sunk if this hadn’t gone their way,’’ conceded Tom Gilbert, campaign director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and ReThink Energy NJ, referring to the court’s decision.
In a statement, Anthony Cox, chairman of the PennEast Board of Managers, praised the Supreme Court for keeping intact seven decades of legal precedent for promoting affordable and reliable energy.
“This decision is about more than just the PennEast Pipeline Project; it protects consumers who rely on infrastructure projects — found to be in the public benefit after thorough scientific and environmental reviews — from being denied access to much-needed energy by narrow state political interests,’’ Cox said.
Critics, however, argued the project is not needed, especially considering the Murphy administration’s push to achieve 100% clean energy by 2050, a plan that envisions electrifying both the transportation and building sectors, with a much smaller reliance on natural gas.
Natural gas is used in most NJ homes, buildings
Natural gas currently generates roughly half of the state’s supply of electricity and heats about 75% of its homes and buildings, according to the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.
“If the Supreme Court had upheld the lower court decision, New Jersey would have ultimately seen energy prices rise, pollution increase and jobs lost,’’ said Raymond Cantor, a vice president of the NJBIA.
In a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court reversed and remanded it back to the lower court. “We have repeatedly upheld these exercises of eminent domain power — whether by government or a private corporation, whether through an upfront taking or direct condemnation proceeding and whether against private property or state-owned land,’’ the court ruled.
In a dissenting opinion by Justice Amy Coney Barrett and signed by a couple of her conservative colleagues, they sided with the state of New Jersey’s argument that allowing PennEast to seize state-owned lands conflicts with and effectively strips states of their sovereign immunity.
Attorney general says state is not giving up
A disappointed New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said this would not be end of the road in the state’s fight against the pipeline. “We have other, ongoing legal challenges to this proposed pipeline, which is unnecessary and would be destructive to New Jersey lands,’’ he said in a statement.
In order to build the proposed pipeline from northeastern Pennsylvania to Mercer County, New Jersey, PennEast has filed suit in federal court to condemn 131 properties in New Jersey, include 42 properties preserved as open space, conservation or farmland. The pipeline would cross at least 31 “Category One’’ streams designated by the DEP.
Beyond the pending federal court cases, the company still needs to secure permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Delaware River Basin Commission, and the DEP.
“Today’s disappointing decision allows a fossil fuel pipeline to proceed that will harm communities and public health,’’ said Kelly Sheehan Martin, director of the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels Campaign. “But, the fight against PennEast is far from over. Governor Murphy can and must say no to this disastrous project.’’