Delaware River Basin Commission faces pressure to reject PennEast pipeline

A sign protesting the proposed PennEast Pipeline route in Carbon County, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A sign protesting the proposed PennEast Pipeline route in Carbon County, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The PennEast pipeline fight has now entered a new phase, but its old foes  — environmentalists and residents from both sides of the Delaware River — are still ready for battle.

At the Delaware River Basin Commission’s first virtual session since the coronavirus shutdown began — a second-quarter business meeting open to the public Wednesday morning — the panel covered a report on hydrologic conditions, a COVID-19-related budget resolution, and more. But for environmental advocates and leaders, the topic of the day was a request by PennEast to construct a natural gas line across dozens of waterways and beneath the Delaware River. The $1 billion project would carry Marcellus Shale gas 116 miles from Luzerne County, Pa., to Mercer County, NJ.

For an hour after the meeting officially adjourned, public commenters decried the pipeline project and called for the DRBC to reject it. Nearly 20 speakers from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the New Jersey Sierra Club, the Clean Air Council, and the New Jersey Forest Services, as well as local residents and a retired Lehigh University chemistry professor, spoke about the environmental threat of pipeline construction and requested a more robust review process.

“The decision you render on PennEast is setting the precedent for all future pipelines that pass through the Delaware River watershed,” Maya K. van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, told the commission.

The DRBC’s listening session was just the latest episode of public outcry over the PennEast pipeline, which has been pushing for approval for nearly six years. The interstate pipeline gained approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, as well as Pennsylvania, but ran into trouble with New Jersey regulators. PennEast, a group of five energy corporations, now proposes to build the gas pipeline in two sections, or phases: one in Pennsylvania, and one in New Jersey.

New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection refused to review its construction permits because of missing surveys for endangered species, impact on drinking water, and threatened freshwater wetlands. New Jersey’s DEP has also requested a new environmental impact statement for the project, and called the need for an additional natural gas pipeline into question.

On the other side of the Delaware River, Pennsylvania has approved the PennEast project. But if the DRBC’s regulations prove more stringent than state law, its standards have the ability to override Pennsylvania’s decision. That’s why environmentalists are putting pressure on the commission to reject the pipeline, conduct more thorough environmental studies, and put tighter regulations on any future pipeline projects.

This is technically PennEast’s second time submitting an application to the DRBC; the review process follows a back-and-forth debate over whether federal policy requires the project to be subject to DRBC review authority as part of its environmental requirements.

“Though PennEast does not believe Phase One requires DRBC approval, PennEast is seeking to work collaboratively with the DRBC and submitted an application for Phase One,” PennEast representative Pat Kornick said in an email to WHYY on Wednesday. “As it has since announcing the project almost six years ago, PennEast welcomes constructive input.”

Kate Schmidt, communications specialist for the DRBC, declined to comment but said the commission’s review of PennEast’s application is ongoing.

Proponents of the PennEast pipeline say it would provide cheap natural gas for customers in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Local organizations and advocacy groups say it’s not worth the cost to the environment and community that is posed by widespread use of fossil fuel.

WHYY CEO Bill Marrazzo is a board member of UGI, one of several partners invested in the PennEast pipeline.

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