Trenton — The Christie administration has engineered the impending approval of a high-pressure gas pipeline that will cut through the heart of the Pinelands, a heavily forested coastal plain designated as an U.N. International Biosphere Reserve. Slated to cross two rivers and up to 14 streams, the 22-mile $90 million energy project would be a major environmental reversal, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Caught in the middle is the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, created by law to protect the Pinelands National Reserve, but now stacked with Christie appointees ready to green-light the pipeline to bring shale gas to repower the B.L. England Electric Generation Plant and transform it from a little used peaking station to a full time base load plant. For the past several months without public review, Pinelands Commission staff has been negotiating approval conditions with South Jersey Gas, according to Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg, a former building industry lobbyist.
The pipeline has already obtained all the other state air, water and utility rate approvals and awaits only the final okay by the Pinelands Commission. After an executive session at the end of its September 13th meeting, the question of how to review and when to inform the public about the proposed pipeline boiled into open session, with the Commissioners apparently unaware they were recorded. In the cacophonous discussion, one Commissioner declared “I don’t really care what the public thinks.”
“The only thing holding up final approval is that the Christie administration has put a lid on all potentially controversial announcements until after this November’s gubernatorial election,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, whose public record requests to the Pinelands Commission about the pipeline have been denied. “Make no mistake; this project betrays the Pinelands legacy while locking New Jersey into expanded fossil fuel infrastructure and reliance when we should be moving in the opposite direction.”
The Pinelands covers 1.1 million acres, nearly a quarter of New Jersey's land area, the largest open space left on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. Among the issues the Commission must sort out in its approval, which will come in the form of a Memorandum of Agreement with the Board of Public Utilities are –
- The amount of mitigation to be required from the operator for natural resource damages. This is one of several issues for which the Commission has no standards to guide its decision;
- How to prevent spills. The Pinelands helps recharge a 17 trillion gallon aquifer containing some of the purest water in the U.S.; and
- What steps should be taken to control or compensate for the large amount of greenhouse gases the repowered plant will generate. Under Governor Christie, the state has no greenhouse gas limits.
“We still have no idea how these and other issues will be addressed, if at all,” Wolfe added, noting the irony that the original Pinelands protections were enacted in the 1970s to block energy pipelines crossing from the coast. “This is the Jersey equivalent of Chinatown, where money, politics and coastal development drive infrastructure mega-deals already decided behind closed doors.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability