A much-contested natural gas pipeline expansion project in northern New Jersey cleared an important hurdle yesterday when the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission found it would have no significant impact on the environment if constructed.
The finding by the federal agency basically clears the way for the commission to issue a certificate of necessity that would allow the project to move forward and be operational by November 2013.
The project by the Transcontinental Gas Pipeline LLC (Transco) is one of a series of natural gas line expansions which have come under intense opposition from environmentalists and local communities as the industry tries to tap into new supplies from neighboring Pennsylvania and New York and to deliver them into the lucrative metropolitan market.
The projects have come under fire from conservationists and residents, primarily because most traverse environmentally sensitive land or areas previously set aside as parkland by either the federal, state, or local governments. The lone exception is a $1.2 billion expansion of Spectra Energy’s pipeline through densely parts of Hudson County, which won approval from the federal agency in May, again despite local opposition.
The expansion of natural gas pipelines is supported by the Christie administration, which views the projects as helping lower sky-high energy bills by bringing cheap natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formations in neighboring states into New Jersey.
The $350 million Transco project has generated widespread opposition from environmental groups because it crosses through an environmental sensitive area, drilling underneath the south branch of the Raritan River, the source of drinking water to more than 1 million people.
The so-called Northeast Supply Line project would install nearly seven miles of new pipeline in Union, Franklin and Clinton townships as well as increasing the capacity of 25 miles of existing pipeline through Essex, Passaic, Hudson and Bergen counties.
“Pennsylvania gets the money, New York gets the gas, and we get the pipe,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, one of four environmental groups that intervened in the case before the federal agency.
The concern among conservationists is the proposed project in New Jersey would impact 35 wetlands in the state, cross 17 waterways, and impact areas with threatened and endangered species, including the bog turtle and Indiana bat, according to the environmental assessment done by the agency.
In the environmental assessment, it noted the federal Fish and Wildlife Agency concluded the project is not likely to adversely affect the species.
“Based upon the analysis in the EPA, we have determined that if Transco constructs and operates the proposed facilities in accordance with its application, supplements and staff’s mitigation measures below, approval of the project would not constitute a major federal action significantly affects the quality of the human environment,” the assessment said.
As for the south branch of the Raritan River, the assessment argued the company would use specialized drilling equipment to avoid impacting the drinking water supplies to residents.
Beyond the pipeline expansion, the coalition of environmental groups argued the project would lead to more hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial drilling method used to extract natural gas that involves injecting millions of gallons of water into a well.