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Natural gas pipelines fuel debate over energy future

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Natural gas has moved to the forefront of New Jersey’s energy future, with backers and foes clashing over the implications of the booming industry.

Natural gas has moved to the forefront of New Jersey’s energy future, with backers and foes clashing over the implications of the booming industry.

Both the recent debate over fracking at the Delaware River Basin Commission and emerging fights over expanding four natural gas pipelines in the state are feeding the feud, with business groups saying natural gas is a reliable and potentially cost-saving energy source.

Tennessee-based TGP is moving forward on two pipeline expansions, the 300 Line and Northeast Upgrade, which will cross northern sections of the state. Meanwhile, Transco has proposed the Northeast Supply Link project in Hunterdon County, and a Spectra Energy pipeline is planned for Hudson County.

The lines were viewed positively in the draft energy master plan proposed by Gov. Chris Christie‘s administration.

“Shale gas is expected to increase substantially in the decade ahead, and may continue to capture increased market share for decades,” the draft plan reads. “There are a number of competing new pipeline proposals that are expected to expand pipeline deliverability into New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area, which would provide Marcellus shale gas producers with improved access to the market. New Jersey’s pipeline and (local distribution company) infrastructure is likely to be strengthened by these new pipelines.”

New Jersey Petroleum Council Executive Director James Benton said the state already is benefiting from natural gas expansion, and noted some New Jersey companies are serving as suppliers for Marcellus shale drilling.

“We have to make sure we’re as competitive as possible,” Benton said, noting that the Oyster Creek nuclear plant is slated for closure. “We need supplemental base-load capacity. Natural gas is one of the bridges that we need to sustain our economy into the future.”

Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, said corporations have been making vast capital investments to tap the Marcellus shale gas reserves, due to the demand for energy.

“Natural gas is a fundamental game changer for everybody,” Bozarth said. The council is one of six business groups, including the Petroleum Council and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, that formed Natural Gas for New Jersey, a coalition promoting natural gas development.

He said industrial energy rates in New Jersey are 70 percent higher than the national average, equaling the sixth-highest rate in the country, Bozarth said; if the state is able to benefit from Marcellus shale fracking, “we’re not going to be rung up on the pillar of high energy costs.”

But environmentalists say fracking — which uses pressurized fluids, containing chemical additives, to release the gas from rock layers — and the pipelines put drinking water and the environment at risk.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said businesses near the Delaware River depend on clean water, and said companies can lower their energy bills by increasing energy efficiency, instead of expanding pipelines. “The river is the lifeblood of this region,” he said.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the DRBC should require a comprehensive environmental study before it makes a decision on fracking. In August, Christie conditionally vetoed a fracking ban, instead initiating a yearlong moratorium on the practice.

While the shale gas debate focuses on the Marcellus shale, which doesn’t extend into New Jersey, the deeper Utica shale does. While Chesapeake Energy Corp.‘s plan to explore the Utica shale in other states has raised concern among some environmentalists, the business community said it’s not a current focus.

“The Marcellus shale is so plentiful and available that to really go another layer deep and more obviously difficult — from all of the other challenges that are there — it’s really not an immediate priority,” Benton said.

Environment New Jersey field director Doug O’Malley said gas-line expansion in the state is raising concerns. He said pipeline construction is likely to lead to runoff, pointing to problems in West Milford near the TGP line after Hurricane Irene and mid-August rains.

“Residents have seen impacts of runoff and having compacted soil in their backyards,” O’Malley said. “This is not a rhetorical debate.”

Environmental groups are planning to push against pipeline expansion at Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meetings, but Benton said he’s skeptical of environmental concerns, saying a 60-plus-year history of fracking and more recently developed drilling practices have allowed the industry to improve its environmental record.

Catherine Landry, spokeswoman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said a study done by the association’s foundation estimated the United States will need average annual investment of about $8.2 billion from 2010 to 2035 to meet its natural gas infrastructure needs.

“Instead of having to transport gas from 1,000 miles away, new lines could allow production from Pennsylvania or Ohio to feed markets in New Jersey, New York or New England,” she said.

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