New Jersey officials resist pipeline company’s eminent domain push

State environmental agency urges federal regulators to hit pause in PennEast case.

CREDIT: Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images
CREDIT: Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images

While the surge in oil and natural gas pipeline construction over the past decade has been met with increasing resistance from residents and environmentalists, several key state officials have been steadfast in their support for fossil fuel infrastructure. State regulators from Pennsylvania to Virginia in particular have served as cheerleaders for pipeline development, regardless of the potential consequences. New Jersey, however, has started to take a different approach.

New Jersey’s new attorney general, Gurbir Grewal (D), recently called on federal regulators to hit pause on the 120-mile PennEast Pipeline. Grewal wants to make sure important environmental issues are addressed before the companies behind the proposed pipeline begin legal efforts to gain access to landowners’ property in his state.

So far, PennEast is seeking eminent domain over nearly 147 parcels in New Jersey and has started proceedings to condemn, or gain legal permission to take control of these areas.

In his motion filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on behalf of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Grewal urged the commission to listen to the department’s concerns. Although the proposed pipeline would cross over 30 streams in New Jersey, the DEP has not been provided with any site-specific information from PennEast detailing how environmental impacts would be avoided or minimized, the attorney general said.

“FERC’s misunderstanding that impacts can be mitigated away not only threatens precious environmental resources but also would leave PennEast in the position of having condemned properties which may not qualify for permits under the Clean Water Act,” Grewal wrote.

PennEast wants FERC to deny the motion, contending the issues raised by the attorney general on behalf of the DEP aren’t new and have already been considered by the commission. PennEast is still seeking to collect survey data that is necessary before FERC can issue an order to allow construction of the pipeline, PennEast spokesperson Patricia Kornick said Tuesday in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “PennEast looks forward to a transparent process and working cooperatively with NJDEP,” she said.

Last month, FERC approved the PennEast project, giving its corporate sponsors the right to pursue condemnation proceedings that would allow them to gain access to the residents’ private property. The project must still get approval from several regulatory agencies, including the DEP and the Delaware River Basin Commission, before construction can begin in New Jersey. On February 1, the New Jersey DEP rejected PennEast’s application for a water quality permit but said the company could reapply.

PennEast would begin in northeastern Pennsylvania and end near Trenton, New Jersey. The project is backed by subsidiaries of a long list of powerful North American energy companies: UGI Corp., New Jersey Resources, South Jersey Industries, Southern Co., and Canada’s Enbridge.

Along PennEast’s proposed route in New Jersey, landowners have formed groups to oppose the use of their property to build the pipeline. Opponents contend the developers of PennEast are not seeking to build this pipeline to meet new demand. No such demand exists, they argue. Instead, they say, the pipeline’s sponsors want to build PennEast to create a new revenue stream for themselves that could total as much as $289 million per year.

Opponents also are optimistic that New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy (D), will ultimately oppose PennEast. “Our new governor campaigned that he didn’t think there was a real need for PennEast. From what I can see, it looks like he’s following up on that,” said Mike Spille, founder of West Amwell Citizens Against the Pipeline, a group formed to oppose PennEast. As currently configured, the PennEast Pipeline would travel about 50 feet from Spille’s property in Hunterdon County, New Jersey.

The New Jersey Rate Counsel, an advocate for utility customers, has come out and said the pipeline is not needed, and that the eminent domain law is being misused because the project, despite the FERC ruling, is not truly in the public interest.

New Jersey’s go-slow approach contrasts with the actions of state officials in Virginia and North Carolina, who have come out in support of major natural gas pipeline projects. In early February, less than two weeks after his administration issued a key permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) announced that he had hired a legislative affairs director who once lobbied Congress on behalf of the natural gas pipeline.

The pipeline has also faced less opposition in Pennsylvania where many residents have accepted the sums of money offered to them by PennEast to build the pipeline through their property.

Townships and counties in Pennsylvania have a history of working with energy infrastructure companies, Spille said. “The people I talk to in Pennsylvania are beaten down by big energy. They feel like it’s impossible to successfully oppose any of them and that no matter what you do, it’s a done deal. They feel they might as well try to get whatever money they can get out of it,” he said.

In New Jersey, an army of lobbyists are working to make sure PennEast gets approved and built. The pipeline developers have more than a dozen registered lobbyists with extensive professional and personal ties to New Jersey politics, according to a new report released earlier this month by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), a nonprofit public interest research organization. Even the Murphy administration has several ties to the pipeline project. The governor appointed five registered PennEast lobbyists to his transition committees, the report said.

Nonetheless, Spille believes state officials will ultimately come down on the side of the landowners who oppose the project. “PennEast can keep throwing lobbyist money out there,” he said, “but it’s not going to make a big difference.”