Will a New Governor Protect our Communities from Pipeline Harms?
By Bradley M. Campbell
Bradley M. Campbell is president of the Conservation Law Foundation. He has served as Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and as Regional Administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Mid-Atlantic Region. This article originally appeared in The Star-Ledger on April 1, 2018.
Gov. Phil Murphy was elected on an unequivocal platform of reversing Chris Christie’s anti-environmental agenda and resisting President’s Trump’s predations on New Jersey’s natural resources at the behest of the oil and gas industry.
The governor’s strong opposition to President Trump’s proposal to reopen New Jersey’s coast to oil and gas drilling has been true to that platform.
But Gov. Murphy follows a procession of governors of both parties who have opposed drilling off New Jersey’s coast. The distinctive test of his leadership will be his willingness to stop a new generation of gas pipelines from crisscrossing the most sensitive lands of our state, even in the face of Murphy’s promise to accelerate the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
New Jersey’s proximity to the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania and to the ports that grant access to overseas markets has put the state in the crosshairs of several proposals for new, unneeded gas pipelines that represent a major new threat to the state’s environment and the world’s climate.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal already has sounded the alarm, condemning a rubber-stamp approval of the proposed PennEast gas pipeline by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) as relying on “woefully insufficient data” and ultimately “defective” because it “erred in finding the Project fulfills the public interest.” Laudably, Grewal has gone to court to block PennEast from using federal law to acquire easements over vast acreage of lands that have been preserved at the public’s expense by the Green Acres and Farmland Preservation programs.
The PennEast project would traverse not only central New Jersey’s most pristine preserved lands, but also its most sensitive streams and other waters. If enforced, the state’s landmark environmental laws and standards should stop or require major changes in the project. But PennEast will be wielding its FERC approval and the forceful lobbying resources of Big Gas, in an effort to undermine the state’s willingness to say no.
The Murphy Administration now has the opportunity to do what the federal government failed to do: tell PennEast that its project is both economically and environmentally harmful.
As Attorney General Grewal recognizes, the burden of opposing the pipeline now falls on my former agency, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Even during the Christie Administration, the Department’s professionals demanded more and better documentation on the potential harm from the pipeline than FERC required or PennEast has been willing to produce. So far, the PennEast sponsors have been unwilling to produce data or analysis that are fundamental to DEP fulfilling its obligations under federal and state law to protect wetlands, clean water, and drinking water supplies.
PennEast’s omissions are significant because its federal approval, FERC’s Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, is expressly conditioned upon approval by DEP under the agency’s delegated Clean Water Act authorities. Under New Jersey’s wetlands laws, PennEast will have to demonstrate to DEP that it has minimized environmental harm, including consideration of alternative solutions. Federal and state laws will also require an independent judgment by the state that the project serves the public interest and meets a compelling need.
That judgment will speak volumes about the new administration’s commitment to environmental protection and clean energy. How can it be, at a time of flat electricity demand, that New Jersey’s public interest is served by sacrificing pristine lands and streams to accommodate more fracked gas from the already scarred and poisoned landscape of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale region?
How can it be that New Jersey has a “compelling need” to accommodate a path — the majority of which would be seized through eminent domain — for fracked gas to be sold overseas?
But more importantly, how can an administration committed to greenhouse gas emission reductions and renewable energy tolerate a massive new investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, with the $1.2 billion cost passed on to New Jersey’s families and businesses?
States need to lead the way in demonstrating that both our economic future and a livable climate depend on transitioning away from the fossil fuels that currently have a stranglehold on national policy. As the Trump Administration offers up our nation’s natural heritage to the highest bidder, states’ interest in protecting natural treasures becomes even greater.
New Jersey has clear authority to resist PennEast’s grab for some of our state’s most pristine and protected resources. By saying no to PennEast, Gov. Murphy would honor the law and demonstrate that his climate and environmental leadership matters.