The much-contested Susquehanna-Roseland power line project plowed into another hurdle yesterday, when the U.S. National Park Service issued a draft environmental impact statement saying that the environmentally preferred alternative among six options is not to build the line at all.
While the NPS emphasized it had not yet selected a final alternative, its decision boosted hopes among environmentalists who oppose the project, which cuts through three units of the national park system, including the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
"For the NPS to choose the no-build alternative is a very big deal," said Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, one of several environmental groups that have gone to court to try and stop the project. "Will it count in the end? It's certainly a hurdle they will have to get over," she said.
The initial recommendation struck independent energy experts as a surprising step, given that the decision runs counter to a move by the Obama administration to fast track the project only last month, one of only seven such projects nationwide targeted for that distinction.
In announcing the fast-tracking of the project in October, a senior member of the Obama administration said that a rapid response team would be established to coordinate permitting decisions among various federal agencies.
Whether the action bodes poorly for the 145-mile power line remains to be seen. Some opponents praised the NPS for bucking pressure from the White House to expedite energy projects at the expense of protecting public lands.
"Our National Park lands are held in the public trust and decisions impacting them should be based on science, not politics," said Kate Millsaps, program assistant for the New Jersey Sierra Club.
In its draft environmental impact statement, the NPS explained why it chose the no-build alternative. "It is the alternative that causes the least damage to the biological and physical environment and that best protects, preserves, and enhances the historic, cultural, and natural resources," according to the statement.
The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, where the proposed line would cross into New Jersey from Pennsylvania, attracts 52 million visitors each year, the eighth most popular park in the national system. While the proposed power lines would follow existing rights-of-way, the NPS noted that the current 80-foot towers, which are now between 100 to 300 feet wide, would be increased to about 195 feet, along with being widened.
Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G), one of the utilities developing the project, called it not surprising that the "no-build" option turned out to be the most environmentally preferred alternative, since power lines, while a benefit to society, can have an impact.
Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for Newark-based PSE&G, noted that the NPS is not scheduled to announce its preferred alternative until the fall of 2012, when it releases its final environmental impact statement.
"The chosen route -- the one that uses an existing power line path through the national recreation area and across the Appalachian Trail -- is the best route to keep the lights on for tens of millions of people in the region," Johnson said.
The ultimate decision will be more far-reaching than simply a dispute over where a power line should go. The project, ordered by PJM Interconnection, is needed to avoid reliability problems in providing electricity in northern New Jersey, according to the operator of the regional power grid. More importantly, business interests have strongly backed the project because it would reduce congestion on the grid, delivering hundreds of millions of dollars in savings to electric customers.
"The state clearly needs the line for reliability and cost savings," agreed Steven Goldenberg, an energy lawyer who backed the line while representing Exelon in various parts of the proceeding. "There will be serious reliability concerns if this line is not built."
Opponents of the project argue otherwise. With New Jersey promoting increased use of cleaner forms of energy, such as solar panels and offshore wind farms, the state could meet its energy needs through those sources while also moving aggressively to reduce energy consumption, they claim.
Somers, while happy about the recommendation, conceded that the battle is far from over, saying PSE&G is hoping to reverse the NPS decision by lobbying the Obama administration in Washington.
"They're betting their bucks will count more than the public's opinion," Somers said. "This is all about PSE&G's bottom line. They are getting $1.14 for every dollar they spend on construction."