State regulators voted Wednesday to approve permitting a controversial natural gas pipeline to cross through a portion of the protected Pinelands in Cumberland and Cape May counties, a move that some environmental groups fear will be repeated by another utility company pursuing approval for a pipeline through northern Burlington County.
The utility's plans still must receive final approval from the Pinelands Commission, the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing land use in the million-acre reserve. However, commission staff have said the project conforms with Pinelands development rules.
The full commission is not expected to vote on the project.
The pipeline is proposed to run from Maurice River in Cumberland County to Cape May County's Upper Township, where it would fuel the coal-fired B.L. England plant, which is proposed to be converted to natural gas.
Business and labor groups have pushed for the project's approval, citing the jobs it would create and the energy it would provide to the region. Gov. Chris Christie's administration also has voiced support for the project, along with several other influential lawmakers.
BPU President Richard Mroz said the project would provide energy "redundancy" for more than 140,000 South Jersey customers and would enable the B.L. England plant's conversion.
"This project is yet another case in point where the board is implementing the policies contained in the 2011 Energy Master Plan and demonstrating progress towards (the plan's) overarching goal of lowering the cost of energy for customers and promoting a diverse portfolio of clean in-state generation," Mroz said.
Environmental groups still fought against the project, arguing that it sets a terrible precedent for future development in the Pines and furthers reliance on fossil fuels for energy.
Much of the controversy is because a portion of the pipeline's route crosses through a protected Pinelands forest area, which is subject to more stringent development rules.
Pinelands Commission staff originally determined that the project did not comply with Pinelands rules because residents living outside the protected area would be the primary beneficiaries of the electricity generated by B.L. England.
The company originally partnered with the BPU to seek a waiver of the Pinelands rules. But the proposed memorandum of understanding failed to garner enough support during a January 2014 vote by the full commission, which split its vote 7-7, with one abstention.
South Jersey Gas submitted a new amended application in the spring, arguing that the line would serve the Pinelands. Among its arguments was that the contract between South Jersey Gas and the B.L. England plant owner, RC Cape May Holds, requires the pipeline to supply the plant, which is in the Pinelands, at least 350 days a year.
Citing the new information, Pinelands Commission staff granted the project a certificate of filing in August, which allowed the project to proceed to the BPU without another vote by the full commission.
Environmental groups said the approval sets a terrible precedent that likely will be repeated by other utility companies and developers interested in building in the environmentally-sensitive Pinelands.
New Jersey Natural Gas also has an application pending before the BPU to build a 28-mile high-pressure transmission line through northern Burlington County. A portion of that project also crosses through the Pinelands.
"The playbook by South Jersey Gas is being looked at by New Jersey Natural Gas," said Doug O'Malley, director of the advocacy group Environment New Jersey. "The route is different, but the justification is going to be remarkably similar."
Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said the BPU's decision allows the South Jersey Gas line to move forward in direct conflict with Pinelands rules.
"So a major precedent-setting development is to be approved with no agency enforcing Pinelands protection rules," Montgomery said. "Just skipping any new ruling on Pinelands compliance allows state government to pretend there is no Pinelands Protection Act for this very big project, and other pipelines to come when they are backed by some of the state's most powerful politicians."
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, and other leaders said an appeal is in the works.
"This pipeline is not only bad for the environment and will undo a successful growth management plan, it’s dangerous and unneeded," Tittel said. "We will continue to fight to protect the Pinelands and take this decision up in court.”