HOPEWELL: Proposed PennEast pipeline gets federal certificate

PennEast Pipeline Logo (PRNewsfoto/PennEast Pipeline Company)HAND-OUT
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PennEast Pipeline Logo (PRNewsfoto/PennEast Pipeline Company)HAND-OUT

The on-again, off-again PennEast Pipeline Co. LLC’s proposal to build a natural gas pipeline through parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey is on again – at least, at the federal level.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” to PennEast in a 4-1 vote last week. The certificate was issued on a conditional basis, requiring that PennEast complies with certain conditions.

PennEast wants to build a 116-mile-long natural gas pipeline from Luzerne County in Pennsylvania through several other Pennsylvania counties and into Hunterdon and Mercer counties in New Jersey, including Hopewell Township.

The New Jersey Sierra Club, meanwhile, slammed FERC’s approval of the controversial pipeline project for siding with the company instead of the public or the environment. Jeff Tittel, the New Jersey Sierra Club’s director, called FERC’s action “shameful.”

FERC’s approval of the PennEast application, however, does not clear the way for the pipeline to be built because it still needs approval from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Delaware River Basin Commission.

PennEast’s application to the Delaware River Basin Commission could take up to a year, Tittel said. PennEast does not have an application before the DEP, and it could take more than a year to apply, he said.

Last summer, the DEP denied a request by PennEast for an extension of its application for a freshwater wetlands permit and water quality certificate. PennEast had been given a 60-day extension and requested an additional 60-day extension of its application, but it was turned down.

The proposed pipeline would bring up to 1.1 million dekatherms of natural gas to customers in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. FERC granted the approval in part because PennEast has agreements with a dozen other shippers for about 90 percent of the project’s capacity.

In its Jan. 19 order to issue the certificate, FERC acknowledged that the project “will result in some adverse environmental impacts, but that these impacts will be reduced to acceptable levels with the implementation of the applicant’s proposed mitigation and staff’s recommendations.”

The project will impact about 1,588 acres of land during construction, and about 788 acres of land when it becomes operational. About 44 miles, or 37 percent of the pipeline route, will be located alongside existing rights-of-way.

At least two FERC commissioners said that while they agree that the pipeline is necessary, they are concerned that a significant number of environmental surveys are incomplete because of the lack of access to landowner property.

Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, who voted to grant the certificate, expressed concern about the order’s impact on landowners. The granting of a certificate means that the certificate holder – PennEast – can exercise eminent domain and seize the land needed for the project if it cannot acquire an easement through an agreement with the property owner, he wrote.

The dissenting commissioner, Richard Glick, wrote that he voted against granting the certificate because PennEast did not show a need for the new natural gas pipeline. The companies that signed up to take natural gas from PennEast are affiliated with it and it is not “the result of an arm’s length negotiation,” he wrote.

FERC should have relied on projects of the demand for natural gas, analyses of the available pipeline capacity and an assessment of the cost savings for consumers, Glick wrote. He also objected to granting PennEast the ability to use eminent domain to acquire the needed land.

Similarly, a letter was sent to the DEP last summer – signed by 31 elected officials, including Hopewell Township Mayor Kevin Kuchinski and Deputy Mayor Julie Blake – that objected to the pipeline because of the damage it would cause to thousands of acres of open space and farmland.

It would require a “taking” by eminent domain of a majority of the land needed for the proposed route through New Jersey, and would violate property rights for private gain, the elected officials wrote last summer.

“The fight starts again,” Titel said after the FERC vote. “[The New Jersey Sierra Club] will work with Gov. Murphy, who has opposed this pipeline, and the new NJDEP who wants to actually protect the environment.”