FLEMINGTON, NJ - Hunterdon County Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren recently spoke on continued opposition to the PennEast pipeline, as new developments in the application to transport natural gas through pipeline that would blaze through several parts of Hunterdon County and potentially take existing residential properties were reported in late summer.

PennEast has proposed to construct and operate the project in two phases.

Some of the major state-owned properties that are part of the PennEast Pipeline route include the Delaware River and Raritan Canal State Park, State Park and its Bulls’ Island, Goat Hill in West Amwell Township and Baldpate Mountain along the Delaware River and north of Washington Crossing State Park near Titusville, which contains the highest point in Mercer County. Most of Baldpate Mountain’s lands were preserved as open space in 1998 by a consortium of the State of New Jersey, Mercer County, Hopewell Township and Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space.

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Near its southern terminus, the PennEast pipeline would cut through the Sourland Mountain region of central New Jersey. The Sourlands spans 17 miles east of the Delaware River, covering 90 square miles and stretching through eastern Hunterdon County, parts of Montgomery Township and Hillsborough.

The Sourlands contains the last contiguous forested areas in central New Jersey, recognized as a unique and fragile ecosystem covered by flora and trap rock formations.

Van Doren called out PennEast in its recent application to split its proposed pipeline into two parts on either side of the Delaware River, a section that would criss-cross Hunterdon County and another that would be most impactful to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He called out the energy company for employing the “small bite strategy,” as he said the plot for PennEast is to build momentum and push the project through the governmental hurdles (and residents’ visible and outspoken opposition) that has been blocking it for the last six years.

“Recently, there was a deadline for comments on a new draft environmental assessment by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on PennEast, which I was alerted to by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation,” he said. “I was able to submit comments to FERC prior to that Sept. 2 deadline. The draft directed its attention to the PennEast plan to split the project into two, the Pennsylvania phase and New Jersey phase. Presumably this is because the company cannot gain required New Jersey environmental approvals at this time.”

Several government agencies have commented on PennEast Pipeline Company LLC, Docket No. CP20-47-000. Last month marked the sixth anniversary of PennEast’s proposal for their pipeline.

Over this span ,and tracking all PennEast developments along the way, the New Jersey Sierra Club joined with Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Berks Gas Truth and the Pipeline Safety Coalition to fight the pipeline and organize the community. The New Jersey Sierra Club – which includes a Hunterdon County/Warren County chapter that meets at the North County Library in Clinton – is registered as an intervenor in PennEast’s new docket to split the project.

According to New Jersey Sierra Club Executive Director Jeff Tittel, PennEast split its pipeline into two segments for this application to try to side-step strong environmental reviews.

“PennEast wants to start construction in Pennsylvania, move forward with interconnects and start shipping their gas,” Tittel said. “This ploy is to also put pressure on New Jersey for permits.”

He noted that in the last week of August, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) sent in comments to the Federal Regulatory Commission on PennEast’s Environmental Assessment. Many of NJDEP’s same concerns about the project that they sent to FERC earlier this year were reiterated and built upon.

“This pipeline is unnecessary, unneeded and dangerous,” Tittel said. “It would threaten the entire valley, including 91 acres of wetlands and over 44 miles of forest, 88 waterways, over 1,600 acres in total. This is a serious project that will affect many people on both sides of the river. This pipeline will create an ugly scar through the region. It will increase our greenhouse gases, worsen climate impacts and endanger public health and the environment.”

“All PennEast does is spin, mislead and cut corners because they have a project that no one wants,” he added. “It's bad for Pennsylvania and for New Jersey, but they will stop at nothing to bifurcate their project through. Whatever tricks they try to pull, we are onto them and we will stop them. We have fought the PennEast pipeline for the past six years. We will fight for another six years or whatever it takes until it is finally stopped.”

The NJDEP emphasized that PennEast must demonstrate that its segmented project is needed. In a further breakdown, NJDEP recommended that FERC conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for both phases of the project, which should include consideration of historical resources for both project phases, and require PennEast to demonstrate that both Phase I and Phase II are needed.

“Whereas each incremental segment is approved, PennEast relies upon that previous approval for its argument to proceed further, because of economic investment,” Van Doren said. “Eventually, they would use that argument in court against the State of New Jersey.”

The draft by FERC was limited to the impact of what PennEast claims is the only major change to its project, which would be on the Pennsylvania side, and is the interconnection planned for Church Street in Bethlehem Township.   

“My letter and comments called on FERC to reexamine the draft, as there is no mention of the effects on residential property rights, protected environmental assets and resources and preserved farmland,” Van Doren said. “I noted that the proposed amendment falls well short of establishing the major environmental and economic impacts of the PennEast pipeline project. It only considers a portion of the project and not the project in its entirety.”

In a filing to FERC, PennEast disclosed the gas shippers with whom it has contracted for Phase I of the project. These gas shippers include New Jersey Natural Gas Company, South Jersey Gas Company, Elizabethtown Gas Company and UGI Energy Services.

PSEG is also one of the shippers.

Environmental groups and advocates raised concerns because these companies building the pipeline will sell a majority of the gas back to themselves, and the amount of gas contracted by companies is a major factor in FERC determining the need for the pipeline.

The fight continues at the Supreme Court and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) which also submitted comments to FERC regarding the PennEast Pipeline Project.

Tittel said the DRBC points out how the first phase of the project is completely within the drainage area of the DRBC’s Special Protection Waters, and that their review is required for discharges directly to basin waters.

“PennEast needs to get the FERC out of our valley,” Tittel said. “PennEast is playing games by bifurcating their pipeline. PennEast is trying to get approval for building their pipeline on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. The whole reason that they split the pipeline into two segments was to try to sidestep DRBC oversight. If they get approval in Pennsylvania, PennEast could use it to put pressure on New Jersey regulators to try to push through their project. PennEast will say or do anything to try to get their terrible pipeline approved.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offered a valid recommendation for FERC’s Environmental Assessment. Tittel said scrutiny of this process from the agency suggests that the Environmental Assessment should “include public participation, provide a clear justification of need and environmental impacts.”

According to Tittel, in New Jersey, PennEast is trying to use eminent domain to acquire properties belonging to the state of New Jersey along the pipeline’s route, which has raised concerns in Hunterdon for almost a decade.

“In my letter to FERC, I noted this county board has opposed the PennEast pipeline plan since its inception, particularly for the possible abuse of the eminent domain process and potential negative effects on preserved farmland and residential property values,” Van Doren said.

In June 2020, the U.S Supreme Court did not issue a decision on whether it will consider a request by PennEast to allow the use of eminent domain to acquire properties belonging to the state of New Jersey along the pipeline’s route. The Supreme Court instead issued an order asking the Justice Department’s solicitor general to file briefs in the case.

“The reason PennEast is bifurcating their project is because New Jersey is currently blocking them at the Supreme Court,” Tittel said. “FERC has already designated PennEast’s authority to do so against a private entity. The Supreme Court is asking input from President Donald Trump’s administration and solicitor general whether or not to consider PennEast’s request. The administration may reverse the Third Circuit decision, and that would be horrible precedent.”

Comments from three major government agencies should raise red flags to FERC, the Sierra Club contends, while Van Doren noted his submission and points conveyed to the federal agency.