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Fuel for the fire

Labor groups and environmental activists square off over the PennEast pipeline

On Oct. 22, the Engineers Labor Employer Cooperative and the International Union of Operating Engineers 825 held a roundtable discussion on “why natural gas is a crucial component to creating sufficient energy supply in New Jersey.” Natural gas delivery systems, like the nearly $1 billion, 100-mile-plus proposed PennEast pipeline, could mean a lot of jobs for unions like Local 825. But some activists groups say the project will harm the environment.

Last year, the consortium behind PennEast won a key approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to move ahead with the project. But a recent Third Circuit Court ruling may delay it, and could put a halt to thousands of jobs that Local 825 is counting on.

“Natural gas projects create good-paying jobs — including union jobs — and that’s a key component of their economic benefit, one that we certainly support,” according to Mark Longo, director of the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative. Launched in 2010, the labor-management organization is a collaboration between building contractor associations in New Jersey and New York. “But in the big-picture sense, our residents and businesses need natural gas to thrive, and right now our state’s energy policies are dangerously close to threatening that success. We need to make sure natural gas is a key part of our balanced energy strategy moving forward.”

A flow of benefits?

Five utilities — NJR Pipeline Co., SJI Midstream, Southern Company Gas, Spectra Energy Partners, and UGI Energy Services — make up the PennEast Pipeline Company LLC. According to them, the “mostly 36-inch, underground pipeline will reduce energy costs and support thousands of jobs with clean-burning, American energy.” The pipeline is planned to originate in Northeastern Pennsylvania — whose gas production reached 6.2 trillion cubic feet in 2018, making the state the nation’s second-largest natural gas producer after Texas — and terminate at a pipeline interconnection near Pennington.

“Natural gas is important to New Jersey because we need a balanced, affordable, and clean energy supply to grow our economy, and natural gas is essential to meeting that goal,” Longo added. “We support renewable energy, too, but we need to be realistic. Right now, New Jersey doesn’t have the technology for a 100 percent renewable portfolio in the near-term. Natural gas is cheap, plentiful, and has contributed hugely to decreasing our emissions while growing our economy.”

From 2008 to 2015, “CO2 emissions fell by 9.5 percent while our country’s economy grew by more than 10 percent,” he added. “Natural gas is increasingly essential even in areas outside of electricity generation – including residential and commercial heating and cooking gas.”

Mark Longo, director of the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative

Longo

Longo added, “PennEast, in particular, is extremely important to New Jersey as our natural gas supply throughout the state lacks backup resources and sufficient additional capacity needed for development, economic growth, and redundancy. That could force devastating moratoriums – just like in neighboring New York – if that supply should be interrupted or demand should increase, as it’s expected to.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo previously rejected a proposal called the Northeast Supply Enhancement, which would have funneled natural gas from Pennsylvania to the Empire State. Now, New York City and Long Island are facing shortages of natural gas, according to published reports.
“Over 74 percent of New Jersey homes rely on natural heat and power their homes during cold winter months,” Longo said. “Had PennEast been in place prior to last winter, New Jersey would have saved $435 million in lower home-heating costs.”

A different take

pipe line conection in oil refinery

DEPOSIT PHOTOS

But not everyone agrees with that assessment. According to ReThink Energy NJ, a nonprofit organization created by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, The Watershed Institute, and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, “New Jersey currently has substantial excess pipeline capacity to meet its needs — even during extreme cold periods — and PennEast would add to this capacity unnecessarily. By creating a further glut in capacity, PennEast would increase costs to New Jersey consumers by $180 million to $280 million per year.”

Crossing the Delaware River and more than 4,300 acres of preserved lands in New Jersey, “the pipeline will threaten significant natural and historic resources,” added a ReThink announcement. “It would damage scores of pristine, protected streams and jeopardize populations of threatened and endangered species such as long-tailed salamanders.”

A PennEast spokesperson, Patricia Kornick, disputed that contention. “Based on constructive feedback from landowners, agencies and others interested in working collaboratively, PennEast has made dozens of route modifications as safely and logistically feasible,” said Kornick. “As a result, wetland impacts are decreased nearly in half, with the total project footprint reduced by more than 20 percent.”

PennEast opponents just scored a court battle victory that could delay the pipeline’s construction. Under the federal Natural Gas Act, private gas companies may exercise the federal government’s power to condemn, or take property, by eminent domain — and PennEast previously filed suit to condemn a number of properties along the pipeline route, including 42 that are owned, in whole or part, by New Jersey or by arms of the state.

New Jersey filed suit against the taking as unconstitutional. A district court ruled in favor of PennEast, but in September the Third Circuit vacated the lower court decision and said the Eleventh Amendment protects states from actions by private parties in federal court.

Kornick doesn’t think that decision will stand, though. “As it pertains to the recent Third Circuit Court ruling, PennEast is confident the legal actions will be resolved favorably,” she said. “The long-standing legal precedent under which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has operated to bring needed, clean, reliable, and affordable energy to consumers will be upheld. The PennEast Pipeline was 90 percent subscribed before PennEast publicly announced the Project five years ago, and the need has grown substantially since then.”

ELEC 825’s Longo is also optimistic. “We’re hopeful the federal government recognizes the project’s merits for not only New Jersey, but other states as well,” he said. “Having increased access to natural gas makes everyone’s lives easier, lowers costs, and helps stave off economic disaster. Furthermore, pipelines are the safest method of transporting natural gas, far more reliable than trains or barges. The ongoing moratoriums in New York should serve as a warning sign to policymakers as they consider PennEast: We need this capacity now.”

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