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Editorial: A push for natural gas pipeline in South Jersey

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Environmentalists hate pipelines. We get that. And the proposal to build a 22-mile natural gas pipeline through the Pine Barrens was botched from the beginning by Gov. Chris Christie's administration, the Board of Public Utilities, the Pinelands Commission and South Jersey Gas.

They tried twice to back-door the controversial plan, and that only further inflamed opponents. Which is a pity. Because the pipeline — from Maurice River Township in Cumberland County to the B.L. England power plant in Cape May County's Upper Township — is much needed and poses little environmental risk.

Tomorrow, the Pinelands Commission, which must approve the project, will hold a public hearing on the plan as part of a redo ordered by an appellate court judge. Opponents will be out in force, but their opposition is misguided. South Jersey needs this pipeline, and the commission must approve it.

Sure, the Pine Barrens are a natural treasure sitting atop a vast aquifer of pristine drinking water. Most development is banned there and should remain so. But this pipeline will run alongside and beneath existing roads through the pinelands. There will be no wholesale destruction of the forest. Furthermore, this is a natural gas pipeline. Were there to be a leak, gas would vent into the atmosphere, not drip into the soil. That’s at least worth noting.

The 22-mile natural gas pipeline
is good for business in the region
and won’t hurt the environment.

And there’s a major environmental plus to the project. The pipeline will allow the B.L. England power plant to convert from coal and oil to cleaner-burning natural gas, resulting in a 97 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions and major reductions in other pollutants. The pipeline will also provide a backup for the single gas pipeline now serving Atlantic and Cape May counties. The state Department of Environmental Protection says the plant must close if it doesn’t convert to gas. Pipeline critics say the plant should close — and be replaced by a vast solar and wind farm. But solar and wind power at the site cannot meet South Jersey’s power needs, particularly with the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Ocean County closing in 2019.

The state BPU made the initial application to the Pinelands Commission in 2014, asking it to approve the pipeline in a process that subjected the plan to less scrutiny than if South Jersey Gas made the application. A 7-7 tie vote killed that play (and Christie immediately replaced one of the commissioners who voted no). Then, in 2015, Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg decided the pipeline met rules that allowed her to unilaterally approve the project without a vote. The courts rejected that play. So, now, it’s back to the beginning for this needed pipeline. The commission should evaluate the project straight-on, with no fancy footwork, and then approve it.

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