UPDATE: On January 10, the New Jersey Pinelands Commission rejected the proposal to build the proposed natural gas pipeline. Members of the commission voted 7 to 7 on the proposal, which means it did not pass.
By Andrew Larzelere
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP – Coal versus gas. Business versus the environment. Jobs versus wildlife. Cheap energy versus clean water.
These big battles are currently playing out along a 22-mile stretch of South Jersey.
The issue is a proposed natural gas pipeline from Maurice River Township to the BL England power plant at Beesley’s Point in Cape May County.
The BL England power plant burns coal and oil and has been instructed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to reduce its emissions or shut down. The plan is to convert the coal burning plant to natural gas, a much cleaner source of fuel, and use a new pipeline to supply it.
NJDEP officials project that a gas-run BL England power plant will emit half as much carbon dioxide and its sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions will be reduced by over 90 percent.
Representatives of South Jersey Gas also argue that it is necessary to construct the line because 142,000 South Jersey Gas customers in the area currently rely on one pipeline to provide them with energy. If the existing pipeline were to fail, they say, many of these customers would be left without heat and electricity.
“We need BL England,” said Robert Marshall of the NJ Energy Coalition at a recent the hearing. “We need a reliable electric supply, and we need natural gas infrastructure for the greater availability of it.”
The Proposed Pipeline Route
Much of the proposed gas pipeline would run along Route 49, either under the road or on the grass shoulder. Dan Lockwood, a public relations manager for South Jersey Gas, claims that this route is the least destructive to the environment.
“The one [pipeline route] selected lies almost completely along or under an existing state highway, and would have the least impact on environmentally sensitive areas,” said Lockwood.
However, the proposed route for the pipline would also cut through approximately 22 miles of the Pinelands, a 1.1 million acre national reserve that is home to a pristine forest and a vast array of wildlife, as well as a 17 trillion gallon aquifer which provides South Jersey with some of the purest water on the East Coast.
Many feel that alternative routes circumventing the Pinelands and utilizing other sources of energy were not given enough consideration.
“The route through the Pinelands Forest Area is not the only way to bring gas to the BL England plant,” said Carleton Montgomery, Executive Director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “And the BL England plant is not uniquely required to serve the electrical grid on which South Jersey residents and businesses rely.”
Jobs, Environment and Safety
Some local unions support the plan, saying it will bring much needed jobs to the area.
“Our members have been looking forward to this job for a while, we’ve gone out and supported the project,” said union worker Ray Phillips. “We don’t believe that there will be a major impact on the Pinelands.”
Those who oppose the pipeline have concerns ranging from global issues, such as the pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels, to local issues, such as the preservation of wildlife in the Pinelands and the quality of water in the aquifer.
They are also very concerned about the pipeline’s potential safety hazards, and frequently cite disasters caused by malfunctioning pipelines in the past.
At a recent hearing, Michael Sheridan, who started a petition on change.org to stop the project, begged officials to consider what might happen if the pipeline exploded.
“There was an explosion in Oklahoma… that was a two hundred yard radius,” said Sheridan. “Imagine a two hundred yard radius anywhere along this route. Anybody who has a business, that’s working that day, will die.”
Bill Wolfe, a former employee of the NJDEP, argues that officials have not explored all of the issues at stake.
“The risks are everything from fire and explosion and pipeline failure to risks of climate change,” said Wolfe. “They have not been addressed, they have not been evaluated. Therefore, you cannot, by definition, have an equal level of protection.”
The $8 Million Deal
Although the project has been approved by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU), the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the NJDEP, it is still awaiting the approval of the Pinelands Commission, which was created to preserve and protect the Pinelands.
Under the Pinelands Commission’s Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP), which is a set of rules established to preserve the preserve, the commission is not supposed to allow infrastructure development unless it directly benefits residents of the Pinelands. This can be sidestepped, however, if equal measures are taken by the developer to protect other portions of the Pinelands.
As a result, the commission has drawn up a proposed agreement that allows South Jersey Gas to build the pipeline in exchange for $8 million.
Nancy Wittenberg, Executive Director of the Pinelands Commission, said that the money would be used to purchase the land adjacent to the pipeline to protect it from further development.
“Once that land is purchased, and made part of preserved state land so it can no longer be developed, the fear or concern of development coming because of the pipeline is taken away,” said Wittenberg.
Environmentalists fear that such a deal will set a harmful precedent, and will make it easier for projects that are not in the best interest of the Pinelands to be approved in the future.
“We’re very concerned that the message the staff is giving the commissioners is that essentially any development can be approved… as long as there is some public agency willing to be sponsored,” said Carleton Montgomery of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.