The State We're In
By Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, 1999-2021
If long-tailed salamanders, Northern long-eared bats, and the other creatures of forests, fields and marshes could throw a party, they’d be celebrating this week! They just won a permanent reprieve from an unneeded and unwanted gas pipeline that would have slashed a huge swath through open space, farms, forests and streams in Hunterdon and Mercer counties.
Seven years after proposing a nearly 120-mile pipeline to carry fracked gas from northeastern Pennsylvania to New Jersey, the PennEast Company announced the project’s cancellation.
This is good news not only for wildlife, clean water, preserved lands and homeowners along the route, but also for the much-needed transition out of fossil fuels to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Lands that would have been severely impacted by the proposed pipeline included special places like the Ted Stiles Preserve at Baldpate Mountain, the Milford Bluffs, the Wickecheoke and Lockatong Creek Greenways and some of the state’s most iconic and scenic preserved farms in the historic Rosemont Valley. Many of the lands were permanently preserved over the last 40 years with public funding from the state Green Acres Program, state and county farmland preservation programs, and landowner donations.
The defeat of the project was quintessential “David vs. Goliath.” The PennEast project was well funded by the oil and gas industry and its allies, and approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, despite clear evidence that it wasn’t needed and would cause significant harm to the environment.
With some of the best legal firms and lawyers that money can buy, PennEast and its oil and gas industry partners – “Goliath” – went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to secure the rights to take New Jersey state lands preserved for future generations.
But an army of “Davids” soon emerged. The most important opposition came from the many affected landowners who refused to be bullied and intimidated into handing over their land to the pipeline company.
Others included local citizens, municipalities, and conservation organizations like New Jersey Conservation Foundation, The Watershed Institute, New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, Hunterdon Land Trust Alliance, Sourlands Conservancy, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Clean Air Council, Clean Water Action, Environment New Jersey, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space and the Sierra Club, plus many others!
New groups like ReThink Energy NJ, HALT (Homeowners Against Land Taking) PennEast, and Citizens Against PennEast Pipeline (CAPs) quickly organized and rallied to enlist the help of elected officials at all levels of government.
Top elected officials opposing the project included the Murphy administration, U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, Congressmen Tom Malinowski and Frank Pallone, Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, state Senators Kip Bateman and Shirley Turner, Mercer and Hunterdon County Commissioners, legislators from Districts 15 and 16, and numerous other state, county and local elected officials.
After winning Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval, PennEast quickly sought to use the federal government’s eminent domain power to condemn and seize both public and private lands along the pipeline route.
But the New Jersey Conservation Foundation joined the New Jersey Attorney General to challenge their right to take state lands. In September 2019, the Third Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the challenge, finding that New Jersey’s “sovereign immunity” under the Eleventh Amendment protects it from federal lawsuits brought by private companies. PennEast appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately reversed the lower court ruling and sided with “Goliath” in a narrow 5-4 decision.
But despite its win at the Supreme Court PennEast canceled the project just three months later, citing additional regulatory and legal challenges.
PennEast was also vulnerable to increased scrutiny for its “self-dealing” business structure. The energy companies invested in the pipeline would mainly sell the gas to their own affiliated utilities, reaping guaranteed profits at ratepayer expense. New Jersey’s Ratepayer Advocate found no public need for the project and called it “unfair to ratepayers” who would foot the bill.
With the pipeline dead, and “Goliath” slain, the army of “Davids” emerged victorious. Today the people and wildlife inhabiting the land along the pipeline route are once again safe and can rest easy knowing the lands, waters and communities are protected. And New Jersey can continue its important work of transitioning away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable sources of energy.
So don’t think for a moment that people can’t protect their communities from harmful proposals and powerful interests. Get involved and speak up about issues that matter to you!
To learn more about the PennEast pipeline and the successful efforts to prevent its construction, visit www.rethinkenergynj.org.
And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org.
About the Authors
John S. Watson, Jr.
Michele S. Byers
Executive Director, 1999-2021
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