The Christie administration's aggressive effort to expand the state's system of natural gas pipelines is posing uncomfortable policy decisions for the agencies overseeing that effort.
Take the Tennessee Gas Pipeline (TGP) Co.'s Northeast Grade Upgrade project. It would bolster efforts to deliver cheap natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formations in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York to businesses and customers in New Jersey, potentially lowering steep electricity bills.
Not many would argue with that premise.
But its proposed expansion of an existing pipeline involves 17.6 miles in the heart of the New Jersey Highlands. It would follow a right-of-way through four state parks, cross 17 bodies of water, traverse 43 wetlands, potentially impact habitat for endangered species, and affect at least two Natural Heritage Priority sites, which are set up to protect and preserve biological diversity, according to the company's own environmental assessment.
The project even envisions shutting down a section of the Appalachian Trail, one of the most popular hiking routes in the United States.
Not surprisingly, the project has generated enormous opposition from environmentalists, a handful of which turned out yesterday to oppose the leasing of state protected lands to push the project forward. Why not elsewhere, they asked?
"This project is being proposed in the Highlands, the most environmentally sensitive part of New Jersey and the most important lands for water supply. This project will have a dramatic impact on an area that should be preserved. This is like putting a pipeline through our Yellowstone or our Yosemite," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
The critics of the project argue it makes little sense to allow the expansion of a pipeline through an area that several generations of New Jerseyans have sought to protect, particularly since the Highlands supplies drinking water to millions of residents.
They have pushed the state and the company, which is hoping to have the pipeline in service by November 2013, to consider alternative routes, a stance the state and company have sought to address. But even some of the alternatives suggested by the company would run through other state protected property, such as Stokes State Forest.
Scott Brubaker, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Permit Coordination and Environmental Routes, noted the company already has revised certain portions of the route based on input from the agency to protect environmentally sensitive land. At the same time, Brubaker said the agency, in most cases, favors expansion of pipeline projects along existing routes because it minimizes environmental impacts from locating the projects elsewhere.
The other problem with the alternatives is they affect residential areas as well as increasing the length of the expansion project, according to company officials.
Under a proposed lease agreement that would allow the pipeline to expand, the state would demand $8.6 million in rental payments over the 25-year pact, require the company to buy up to 120 acres of protected land to compensate for acreage destroyed during the project and other mitigation measures, according to Judith Yeany, chief of legal services and stewardship for the state's Green Acres program.
Still, Yeany emphasized that the current lease proposal is a "worst-case scenario. We do fully expect the final lease to be lower than in the current FERC filing," she said, referring to the request from TGP to win a certificate of approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The state has intervened in that case and hopes to convince the agency to accept some of the state's recommendations for protecting environmentally sensitive land, Brubaker said.
From TGP's perspective, the expansion project would help the industry meet natural gas storage to meet peak-day winter requirements, which currently strain regional pipeline capacity, according to Melissa Dettling, environmental project manager for the company. The project also is consistent with the revised Energy Master Plan, she said.
In a presentation, the company said it has sought to mitigate the impact of its expansion project, citing efforts to decrease the right-of-way along the pipeline from 100 feet to 75 feet, and proposing other measures to protect forest land impacted by the proposal.
It failed to sway Tittel. "Quite frankly, these lands are not replaceable," he said.