No good deed goes unpunished. Or, in the case of the PennEast Pipeline, unapproved.
The 115-mile pipeline, which would bring clean-burning natural gas from the shale fields of northeast Pennsylvania to central New Jersey, holds the promise of reduced carbon emissions and job growth in the Tri-State region. Despite those potential benefits, New Jersey politicians and regulators have refused to approve plans for the PennEast’s final leg, which would take the pipeline across their state.
Construction of the first 68 miles of the pipeline, all within Pennsylvania, is expected to begin this year. The system would run from north of Wilkes-Barre to an endpoint in Northampton County. If and when it wins approval, the second phase would cross New Jersey through Hunterdon County to a terminus in Pennington, which is in Mercer County.
On one level, the fight over the pipeline is another front in the war over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation. Opponents have argued that the greenhouse gases generated by the production and use of natural gas from the Marcellus must be considered in judging the pipeline’s environmental impact. In late 2019, a divided Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the pipeline, saying it did not have the authority to consider the impact of either production or use of the gas carried by the proposed pipeline.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), state regulators, and environmental groups have consistently opposed the pipeline on more familiar “Not in My Back Yard” grounds. They contend the project would destroy open spaces, threaten the Delaware River watershed, and trample property rights via eminent domain claims.
All of this understandably frustrates supporters of the $1.2 billion PennEast project, including the group of energy companies behind the pipeline. PennEast Pipeline LLC is backed by NJR Pipeline Company, SJI Midstream, Southern Company Gas, Spectra Energy Partners, and UGI Energy Services.
The consortium and its allies believe additional natural gas pipeline capacity is needed to provide cleaner power to existing and potential new industrial sites in the area. Without the increased supply of natural gas made possible in part by the PennEast pipeline, advocates contend, manufacturers and other businesses will be hesitant to locate or remain in the region.
Those industrial sites include the Kimberly-Clark paper plant in Chester, Pa., which recently invested $150 million (and a $6 million grant from Pennsylvania) to convert its 30-year-old coal power plant to a 24-megawatt cogeneration facility fueled by natural gas from the nearby Adelphia pipeline.
Kimberly-Clark estimates switching from coal to natural gas reduces the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent and lowers the mill’s direct CO2 emissions by 150,000 metric tons.
The cost efficiencies made possible by the switch to natural gas may have also helped keep the plant open as the company realigned its operations. Kimberly-Clark has declined to comment on that aspect of the conversion.
PennEast supporters say New Jersey consumers will also benefit from the increased supply of natural gas. Citing independent market experts, Concentric Energy Advisors, PennEast LLC claims the proposed pipeline could have saved New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania families and businesses over $1.3 billion during two recent winters.
Pipeline advocates also dismiss their critics’ concerns about the loss of open space, noting that the Penn East will repurpose several miles of existing pipelines previously used to transport other materials. What’s more, the company says, its mitigation plan calls for open space and farmland to be returned to their original purpose once the pipeline is in place.
Right now, however, the battle is focused on the eminent domain issue. In early February, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear PennEast’s appeal of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit’s ruling that PennEast cannot use eminent domain powers to seize land owned by the state of New Jersey to build its pipeline. The Natural Gas Act, which was enacted in 1938, gives a gas company the power of eminent domain if it can prove the project serves a public need. New Jersey asked the Supreme Court not to hear the case while the Trump administration urged the high court to take it.
But even if PennEast wins that case, the pipeline will likely face a continued slog toward possible approval. NJR Pipeline’s parent company recently pulled the PennEast project from its financial growth projections through 2024, citing the continuing stand-off.
One day, creating jobs while reducing carbon emissions will be seen as benefits worth bringing to the Garden State through private enterprise. But that day clearly isn’t today — or even tomorrow.