“Truly a special place,” says the National Park Service online guide. (Pictured: the Mullica River, from wiki commons). The fragile environment of the New Jersey Pinelands gained a rare win this month over development pressures, as represented by the governor, the utility industry, and multistate corporate interests.
Lane closures last fall on the George Washington Bridge and a possible misuse of Superstorm Sandy funds are not N.J. Governor Chris Christie’s only problems these days. The presumptive Republican presidential candidate for 2016 has also taken the losing side in a fierce controversy over a natural gas pipeline proposed to divide the Pinelands National Reserve, previously known as the Pine Barrens and made famous in a 1967 book by John McPhee.
“Low, dense forests of pine and oak, ribbons of cedar and hardwood swamps bordering drainage courses, pitch pine lowlands, and bogs and marshes combine to produce an expansive vegetative mosaic unsurpassed in the Northeast.”–National Park Service
Christie’s administration had lobbied strenuously for the gas pipeline, viewing it as an important economic tool for development in southern New Jersey. Labor unions and business leaders also expressed support. Vehement objectors said it could “destroy the natural resources of the region. The Pinelands will see more air and water pollution as a result of the project, and more spills that are inevitable and [would] result in polluting of the aquifer…. This pipeline will cut a scar through the region, causing irreparable harm that cannot be mitigated.” Alternatives to the proposed pipeline route exist, but they have not been proposed by industry.
The sandy natural reserve, which comprises almost 25% of the state and includes four state forests and two National Wild and Scenic Rivers, shallowly overlies the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, 17 trillion gallons of some of the purest water in the United States. The aquifer serves millions of New Jersey residents and visitors.
Twelve thousand acres of the Pinelands are very rare “pygmy forest,” dwarf–but mature–stands of pine and oak less than 11 feet tall. The Pinelands contains 850 species of plants, with unusual range overlaps where 109 southern and 14 northern species reach their respective geographic limits.Fauna of the Pinelands include 39 species of mammals, 299 bird, 59 reptile and amphibian, and 91 fish species. The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife lists 43 of these animal species as threatened or endangered. Recreational opportunities in the area include canoeing on the distinctive tea-colored rivers, camping and backpacking, hiking and bicycling on miles of sandy wooded trails and flat, quiet blacktop roads, fishing, small game, migratory bird, and deer hunting, exploring historic sites, wildlife observation, and other education and adventure experiences.
South Jersey Gas and the state Board of Public Utilities (in a possible conflict of interest) proposed to connect a 22-mile 24-inch-diameter gas pipeline across the unique ecosystem. The proposal would have allowed the 450 MW B.L. England (Beesley’s Point) power plant in Cape May County to make a $400 million conversion to natural gas, an environmentally preferable fuel, from coal by 2016. (The England plant has the last coal-fired units in the state without state-of-the art pollution controls. The current owners bought it in this condition. Fuel conversion might boost its output to 570 MW. The plant primarily serves electric demand outside the Pinelands.)
The Pinelands National Reserve has been protected under federal and state law since 1978. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission, an independent state/federal agency established by the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, controls all development there. The United Nations designated the area as an International Biosphere Reserve a decade later. New gas pipelines are strictly banned in the Pinelands, largely because of the vulnerability of the aquifer. The proposal required an exemption (Waiver of Strict Compliance) to overcome the prohibition.
Although the Associated Press and ABC News wrote off the six-month controversy as “a classic jobs-versus-the environment clash,” like any other infrastructure project the debate raised a subtler boom/bust question of permanent jobs vs. construction-phase employment. It also involved far more nuance and higher stakes.
As noted in the conversion documents, a shift from coal to gas would nearly eliminate nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions from the B.L. England facility. However, carbon dioxide and fine particulate emissions would still occur and would be significant. The power plant project’s Air Modeling Report did not address them.
The gas company noted in its application that in addition to giving the power plant a “cleaner” fuel source, a new gas pipeline would also transport more natural gas to thousands of customers in Atlantic and Cape May Counties, many of whom have visited and moved into the area since casino gambling took hold there about 35 years ago. The dual purpose raised the questions of the importance of each priority and the proportion that might be allotted to commerce and industry versus residential use.
South Jersey Gas also proposed paying $8 million into a Pinelands fund that would have acquired and preserved 2,000 to 3,000 acres of land near the gas pipeline route. It would also have funded a new visitor center and various education projects. To some, this move may have seemed an attempt to buy the commission’s favor.
Four former New Jersey governors (Democrats Brendan T. Byrne and James J. Florio, and Republicans Thomas H. Kean and Christie Whitman) opposed the gas pipeline project in a joint letter to the commission. Byrne had signed the original Pinelands law, Kean initially implemented it, and Florio later chaired the commission.
“The current proposal would compromise the integrity of the Pinelands plan and serve to encourage future development contrary to the vision the plan sets out for growth and conservation in the Pinelands,” the governors said.
On the other hand, the commission’s staff recommended on January 6 that despite the lack of required local service from the pipeline, the 15 members should approve the proposal. So did a report from the commission’s executive director, Nancy Wittenberg. Also before the vote, the state attorney general, who reports to Christie, required one of the commission members, a well-known environmental law professor named Edward Lloyd, to recuse himself from the vote due to a conflict of interest. Eight votes were needed to approve action either way.
After the recusal, which Lloyd appealed to the state’s Ethics Commission, each side thought it had enough votes to pass. However, the final vote tied 7-7, and the gas pipeline was narrowly defeated as incompatible with the nature of the Pinelands National Reserve. The proponents can still reapply.
One of the interesting factors involved in the defeat of the proposal was the fact that emissions from power plant would hurt the Pinelands by contributing to global warming. Climate change has caused the Southern Pine Beetle to proliferate in the Pinelands, one commissioner pointed out, and a rise in CO2 emissions from the plant would increase the great harm done by this insect.
In a subsequent article in the New York Times, writer Michael Powell stated that after the decision, “It was not immediately clear whether the power plant would seek an alternate means of getting natural gas.”