In a draft agreement that could pave the way to convert a former coal-fired power plant to natural gas, two state agencies last week laid out a framework to allow construction of a 22-mile gas pipeline, about half of which would run through the Pinelands Forest Management Area.
The memorandum of agreement between the New Jersey Pinelands Commission and the state Board of Public Utilities is the latest example of much-contested utility projects that aim to enhance the reliability of the grid by building either gas pipelines or power transmission lines through areas previously set aside for protection because of environmental considerations.
The proposals are in line with recommendations and actions taken by the Christie administration to reduce energy costs by promoting projects that would bring lower-cost electricity and cheaper natural gas into a state where consumers have long been saddled with extremely high bills.
The pipeline counties
The $90 million project proposed by South Jersey Gas would establish a pipeline in Maurice River in Cumberland County to the former BL England power facility in Upper Township in May County. It is much more modest than some other projects receiving state approval.
Most notable is the $750 million, 45-mile high-voltage transmission line proposed by Public Service Electric & Gas through segments of three national parks in the Highlands region. Other gas pipeline projects are under consideration or have been approved the same area, the source of drinking water for millions of New Jerseyans.
Nevertheless, the gas conversion project in South Jersey is bitterly opposed by some environmental groups, who fear, if built, that it will disturb or damage portions of the state-protected Pinelands and the federally protected Pinelands National Reserve.
“Right before the holiday (Thanksgiving) weekend, the Pinelands Commission releases the draft MOA. This is just a sellout of the Pinelands for money,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, referring to an $8 million payout by South Jersey Gas, the bulk of which would be used to acquire additional land for protection within the Pinelands. The draft agreement was made public by the commission on Nov 27, the Wednesday before the long holiday weekend.
The agreement, however, contends that the pipeline project is not expected to have any impact on the environmental resources of the Pinelands, especially since it will be built along existing paved and disturbed road rights-of-way. By converting the former coal plant to natural gas, it also would reduce pollution from various contaminants, including sulfur dioxide, a pollutant that contributes to smog, and mercury emissions, according to the agreement.
The BL England plant is now owned by RC Cape May Holdings, LLC, which agreed to shut down its two coal units in a deal it reached with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, largely because the facilities would be unable to meet tougher pollution control standards.
Why a pipeline is needed?
With the expected closure in 2019 of the Oyster Creek nuclear generating station, the oldest commercial nuclear power plant in the nation, the draft agreement between the BPU and the Pinelands Commission cites the need to develop additional generation or transmission lines to ensure the reliability of the power grid in the region. “There is a critical need to expand natural gas (and) electric generation within New Jersey, particularly with the impending retirement of the (Oyster Creek) generation facility,” according to the agreement.
If the former BL England plant is also shut down it would likely require additional transmission lines to be built in or near the Pinelands region at a cost of $100 million, according to one consultant hired by the agencies.
“The continued operation of the BLE plant is critical to ensuring adequate electric supply to the Pinelands Region, New Jersey coastal areas and helps the state directly to achieve the goals of the EMP (Energy Master Plan),” the agreement said.
The new gas line also would increase service reliability to many of the 350,000 South Jersey Gas customers, the agreement noted. In Cape May County, approximately 61,000 of its customers receive gas from a single feeder line, according to South Jersey Gas. The utility’s modeling predicts that all would lose gas service if the line is disrupted during winter heating months.
Tittel, however, argued that the project is unnecessary, noting three other natural gas plants are proposed in New Jersey, including one in West Deptford Township in Gloucester County. “There is not a need for this plant and it should be retired,” he said.
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