The controversial PennEast Pipeline through Hunterdon County has gotten a conditional go-ahead from the federal government. But the proposed natural gas conduit faces an uphill climb in the State House and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation is waging a campaign against it. Campaign Director Tom Gilbert spoke with Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.
Aron: You’re one of the leading fighters against the PennEast Pipeline. Where does that project stand right now?
Gilbert: Well, as expected, a federal agency, FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission], basically rubber stamped approval of the pipeline a little over a week ago and it’s not a surprise because the agency has a track record of essentially approving every project that comes before it.
Aron: It has that track record even before the Trump administration?
Gilbert: It does.
Aron: FERC stands for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. There are some hurdles the project still has to pass at the state level?
Gilbert: That’s right. Even though Washington has conducted this flawed review and ignored very significant risks to our environment, to consumers, to our health and safety, the good news is that New Jersey has very significant authority that’s separate and apart from the FERC approval. And New Jersey has the ability to say no and set its own direction under the state’s very stringent laws that protect our water and natural resources.
Aron: Why should the state say no?
Gilbert: Well this pipeline, first of all, is not needed and there is very significant evidence of that including from the New Jersey Rate Counsel, who’s the consumer watchdog, who said there’s no evidence of need for the project and it would be harmful to ratepayers who would foot the bill, and very significant environmental impacts, threats to our water resources in particular. The pipeline would cut through scores of the cleanest streams in the state that drain into the Delaware River and supply drinking water to millions of people.
Aron: This is a national gas pipeline that would bring gas from Northeastern Pennsylvania where all the fracking goes on down through Hunterdon County and Mercer County. Isn’t the gas needed?
Gilbert: It’s not, and again there’s evidence coming from the New Jersey Rate Counsel and energy experts that New Jersey has more than enough pipeline capacity to meet the state’s needs. There are 1,500 miles of pipelines already, and this would bring in fracked gas, as you said, from Pennsylvania, which is a dirty, polluting fossil fuel and that really stands at odds with the new direction on energy that Gov. Murphy has committed to take the state to move towards clean, renewable sources of energy like wind and solar.
Aron: The proponents of this say that it lowers prices of electricity, that it contributes to better air because it takes a minor amount of pressure off of coal-fired power plants and that it creates a lot of jobs. What’s wrong with that picture?
Gilbert: Well first in terms of air quality, the primary source of harmful emissions from electric generation in New Jersey come from natural gas. The rest of our energy is coming from nuclear energy at a very small portion from renewables. So, natural gas is the source of harmful emissions from electric generation in New Jersey. If we bring more natural gas in New Jersey, it’s only going to drive up emissions, not drive them down.
Aron: Gov. Murphy is pretty liberal on most issues, including the environment. You say there are significant regulatory hurdles at the state level. Murphy could just shut this down if he wanted to, couldn’t he?
Gilbert: Well, the state has the authority to say no under the Clean Water Act and laws that the state DEP carries out. Yes, and a similar pipeline in New York was rejected by the Cuomo administration because it didn’t meet water quality standards. And we think that the Murphy administration and the DEP will have every reason to reject the permits for this project because there is no way that it could be constructed in way that won’t harm our water and our natural resources and violate our standards.
Aron: How long has this fight been going on over this pipeline?
Gilbert: It’s already been about three years in the making and they still have a long way to go in addition to the DEP review. They still need review by the Delaware River Basin Commission and that hasn’t even begun. So, this is very far from a done deal.
Aron: And I noticed that Congressman Lance is against it and Sen. Kip Bateman is against it. One can only assume that Murphy is going to stop it.
Gilbert: Well, there has been broad bipartisan opposition to this project at all levels of government. Both New Jersey senators have expressed concerns about the environmental impacts. Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, Congressman Lance, at the state level, legislators on both sides of the aisle, every town, both Mercer and Hunterdon Counties, hundreds of homeowners who are threatened with having their land seized through eminent domain.
Aron: Seized or paid for, purchased?
Gilbert: Well, taken through eminent domain against their will, and of course they would have to be given some compensation for that. But, the fact is that hundreds of homeowners who are opposed to this unneeded pipeline are threatened with now with this federal approval of having their land taken through eminent domain against their will.
Aron: Very briefly, Murphy signed an executive order this week that would put New Jersey back into RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. How significant is that?
Gilbert: It’s very significant and from what we understand it’s just one of numerous steps that he plans to take to make New Jersey a leader in addressing the climate crisis, to move New Jersey forward to clean energy, and that’s one of the reasons why this pipeline makes no sense. It’s completely at odds with the clean energy future that the governor is now embarking the state upon and it’s just another reason why this pipeline should be stopped.