Rejection of Pinelands gas line surprises everyone

Opponents of the pipeline hold up signs before the vote. January 10, 2014. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / staff photographer )

As it became clear Friday that a sharply divided New Jersey Pinelands Commission would reject a proposed natural gas pipeline, supporters and opponents in the room were united - in surprise.

"I'm absolutely astounded," veteran environmental advocate Ted Gordon said after the 7-7 vote.

"I thought it was a losing battle," Allen Crawford, an illustrator and environmental advocate, said.

"I am surprised and disappointed," declared Jim Kehoe, president of the New Jersey State Association of Pipe Trades, which represents 10,000 union plumbers, pipefitters, and other tradespeople.

Pipeline fans and foes have been lobbying the commission, which oversees the 1.1 million-acre national reserve, for the better part of a year. Almost 10 hours of public comment was taken in December alone.

And as icy rain fell outside Friday morning, 100 people were packed into a compact meeting room at commission headquarters in Pemberton Township.

The crowd was buzzing about Commissioner Edward Lloyd, who had been expected to vote no but was absent after the New Jersey Attorney General's Office suggested he recuse himself because of a professional affiliation. Lloyd submitted a statement insisting he has no conflict of interest that would prohibit him from voting, although he did not do so.

A trump card, or not

The commission - most of whose members are gubernatorial appointees - was considering a measure not unlike 21 other agreements approved in the last two decades, Commissioner Paul Galletta noted.

Gas lines and other utilities already run through the Pinelands; the new line would have been buried along existing highway shoulders; improving the power grid is the sort of thing that's popular with the post-Sandy public.

And the fact that the 22-mile-long, 24-inch-wide line would primarily have provided an alternative fuel source for the coal-fired Beesley Point electric power plant in Cape May County looked to me like a trump card.

"If they were really interested in protecting the environment, why not shut down a coal plant that's right next to the Pinelands?" said Kehoe.

The pipeline and plant conversion projects would have created 550 construction jobs, he said.

But employment, emissions, and preexisting pipelines were not significant considerations. Most at issue was whether the request met the requirements for obtaining a less stringent waiver from regulations called a "memorandum of agreement."

'Back to haunt us'

"I don't think the Comprehensive Management Plan for the Pinelands was written for this kind of thing to happen," said commission chairman Mark Lohbauer, referring to the agreement, not the pipeline itself.

"We should not allow a lesser standard to be the rule," he said. "That will come back to haunt us when other [similar] development is sought through protected areas."

I agree; the fewer exceptions the better, when the future of a unique and fragile landscape like the Pinelands is on the table.

Exceptions should be as rare as some of the flora and fauna amid all those pitch pines and cedar swamps and sandy trails.

But let's remember Gov. Christie can accept or reject the minutes of Friday's meeting.

South Jersey Gas, which was to build the pipeline, is "disappointed ... and need to review our options," the company said in a statement.

So is it possible we haven't seen the last of this proposed pipeline through the Pines?

I wouldn't be surprised.

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan