PennEast pipeline can take New Jersey lands using eminent domain, judge rules

A sign on the side of a barn on Riegelsville Road in Holland Township, New Jersey, shows local opposition to the PennEast pipeline. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A sign on the side of a barn on Riegelsville Road in Holland Township, New Jersey, shows local opposition to the PennEast pipeline. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The PennEast Pipeline Co. can take private land through eminent domain to build a natural gas pipeline, a New Jersey federal judge ruled on Friday.

U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti said he was satisfied that the company is legally entitled to use the properties of about 150 landowners who have been fighting the controversial project for years.

The judge rejected the landowners’ arguments that a federal certificate approving the pipeline was not final, and that the company could not “condemn,” or take possession of, portions of the properties immediately.

“This Court finds PennEast is entitled to the condemnation orders … and they are entitled to them on an immediate and expedited basis,” Martinotti wrote in a 50-page opinion issued some eight months after he heard oral arguments by both sides.

The planned pipeline would carry natural gas about 120 miles from Luzerne County in northeast Pennsylvania to central New Jersey. The project has generated strong opposition in some communities, especially in New Jersey, where critics argue that the pipeline is not needed and would damage natural resources.

They also reject PennEast’s claims that it already has orders for the gas that would be carried in the line, saying that some of those orders have been placed by stakeholders in the project, including New Jersey Resources and South Jersey Industries, and so are not genuine evidence of demand.

PennEast argues that the $1 billion pipeline will bring low-cost natural gas from Pennsylvania’s abundant Marcellus Shale reserve to New Jersey consumers.

The project has been delayed, and the company now says it plans to start construction in 2019. But it still needs permits from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which has already rejected its application on the grounds of incomplete information, and from the Delaware River Basin Commission, which has yet to begin its review of the project.

The New Jersey Conservation Foundation said Friday it would continue to argue against the project.

“Today’s ruling favored private interests over the public good by letting PennEast — owned in part by New Jersey Resources and South Jersey Industries — seize nearly 150 private and preserved lands for its ill-advised pipeline before the State of New Jersey has decided whether it will even be approved,” said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for the foundation. “We will continue the fight to protect our land, water and communities from this unneeded, damaging project.”

The lands affected by the ruling include state-owned properties where natural resources are protected, Gilbert said.

In January, PennEast received a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, allowing it to seek court permission for eminent domain on land owned by people who have refused its offers of compensation.

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