Environmentalists decry permit extension approval for natural gas terminal in South Jersey

Transfer pipes carry liquified natural gas to and from a holding tank. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Transfer pipes carry liquified natural gas to and from a holding tank. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The Delaware River Basin Commission on Thursday approved a three-year permit extension for a controversial project to build New Jersey’s first terminal for exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) along the Delaware River.

The extended permit gives Delaware River Partners, an affiliate of New Fortress Energy, until June 2025 to build a dock on the Delaware River in Gibbstown, Gloucester County.

The terminal project, which involves dredging a portion of the Delaware River, will enable the company to transport LNG by truck and/or rail along the Delaware River from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale to Gibbstown, and export gas overseas. Delaware River Partners is still seeking approval from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to extend a separate permit that allows them to transport LNG by rail.

The building of an LNG terminal in South Jersey has sparked concern from environmental and civic groups, and residents, who say exporting LNG would pollute the air and water, and could destroy homes in the event of an explosion.

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More than 100,000 signatures against the project have been submitted to the DRBC, according to the environmental advocacy group Delaware Riverkeeper Network. The group appealed the project in 2019, but DRBC commissioners gave the project final approval in December 2020. Following a second DRN appeal, the case is now in federal court awaiting a ruling.

The commission’s executive director, Steve Tambini, already approved extending Delaware River Partners’ expired permit in June. Delaware Riverkeeper Network Deputy Director Tracy Carluccio said her group only discovered the permit extension approval after filing a public records request. After objections from DRN, Tambini sought a final decision from the commissioners on Thursday.

Four commissioners voted in favor of the permit extension, with New York state abstaining. The DRBC oversees water use and quality in the Delaware watershed, including ensuring there’s enough clean drinking water for more than 15 million people in Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. The agency is made up of the governors of those four states, and the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ North Atlantic Division, who represents the federal government.

Carluccio argues that permits can only be extended if substantial funds have been expended on a project. Delaware River Partners has spent at least $1.8 million of the estimated price tag of $113 million. Carluccio also said the public was not given the opportunity to provide comments.

“It is no way to run an agency to have the public find out about an extension of a permit —  particularly for a project as controversial and publicly opposed as the Gibbstown LNG export terminal is — through the freedom of information request,” Carluccio said. “The public has the right to know about the projects, and has the right to have input on the projects that will impact their lives, and this one will.”

A DRBC spokesperson said in an email that the Commission believes the $1.8 million that Delaware River Partners has spent is substantial enough to approve a permit extension. She added that prior to the 2019 approval, the Commission provided a 14-day written comment period, and a public hearing. In addition, she said, the Commission held an adjudicatory hearing and a 55-day public comment period after the Delaware Riverkeeper Network appealed the approval of the project.

The spokesperson said because the permit extension does not change the scope of the project itself, a hearing was not required in this instance.

“The Commission’s practices likewise do not require the Commission to conduct an additional public hearing where the docket holder does not seek a change to the terms and conditions of the docket, which DRBC previously issued after an extensive public process,” the emailed statement read.

For years, companies that wanted to transport LNG by rail faced steep hurdles, and only a few were approved through a special permit (such as the one in Gibbstown). However, former President Donald Trump eliminated those requirements in 2020. Environmental groups, including DRN, petitioned President Joe Biden to reverse Trump’s move.

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“The processing of LNG requires inducing or increasing the fracking of gas from wells in Pennsylvania, and as a result of that, we’re exposing communities to human health harms,” Carluccio said, “and we’re exposing the environment to continued devastation from, not only methane being released into the atmosphere and increasing global warming, but also the dangers of the toxic materials used in the fracking process.”

She adds that she fears more applications for the transport of LNG will be filed – there is another proposal for an export terminal in Chester.

Jon Hurdle of NJ Spotlight contributed to reporting

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