Construction on a controversial natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands may proceed without further review, New Jersey's Board of Public Utilities ruled Wednesday.
The board voted 3-0 that South Jersey Gas was not required to submit its plans for review by municipalities along the proposed line's 22-mile route.
With the vote, the project appeared to clear the final hurdle in a long approval process, although environmental groups vowed to appeal.
In August, the staff of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission approved the project without a vote of the commission's board, which had rejected a nearly identical plan a year and a half before.
Dan Lockwood, spokesman for South Jersey Industries, parent company of South Jersey Gas, said the utility was "pleased to receive this approval" but "needed to review the order in detail and determine our next steps."
Environmental groups quickly denounced the approval process, alleging that the BPU had "rubber-stamped" the project and that Pinelands Commission staff had circumvented their own board under pressure from Gov. Christie's office.
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance called the approval "deplorable" and "a case of politics and money triumphing over Pinelands preservation and the public interest."
Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, echoed those views and said his organization would appeal, alone or with other plaintiffs.
The BPU said in a statement that Wednesday's vote effectively declared that the pipeline was "reasonably necessary for the service, convenience or welfare of the public."
One board member recused himself from voting, and another was absent.
Beginning in Maurice Township in Cumberland County, the 24-inch-diameter line would deliver natural gas to the B.L. England generating plant in Upper Township, Cape May County. Plans call for converting the aged and notoriously polluting 450-megawatt oil- and coal-fired plant to gas-fired if the pipeline is built.
Owned by Rockland Capital of Austin, Texas, the plant would continue to sell electricity to the PJM grid, which provides power in 13 states.
While Tittel and other environmental advocates allege that the region does not need more electrical-generation capacity and that a new plant would emit more of the carbon emissions that warm the planet, the BPU said Wednesday that its vote "recognized the importance of the B.L. England plant in maintaining the reliability of the electrical grid of the region."
If the project proceeds, it will be a turnaround for South Jersey Gas, which 23 months ago lost a bid for a waiver from the Pinelands Commission to bury the pipeline through 10 miles of protected forest.
In January 2014, after many contentious hearings, the commission's board voted, 7-7, that the project would not comply with the New Jersey Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan. That plan bars utilities from building infrastructure in protected forest areas unless these primarily serve local needs.
Months earlier, the commission's staff had ruled that the pipeline would be a nonconforming use. Without a majority vote in favor, the request for a waiver was denied.
That decision reportedly angered Christie, who supports the pipeline, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney. Christie appointed new members to the board who were believed to be favorably disposed to the pipeline, and in May South Jersey Gas submitted a new application for approval.
While the plan was very similar to its original proposal, the utility this time did not seek a waiver, known as a Memorandum of Agreement. Instead it contended that the pipeline conformed to the Pinelands' bylaws because it would serve the needs of an inhabitant of the Pinelands, specifically the B.L. England generating plant.
South Jersey Gas further argued that because it was a utility and not a government agency, its application should be considered "private" under Pinelands bylaws. As such, it argued, it did not need the approval of the Pinelands Commission board - only its staff.
The commission's staff determined that the application was indeed "private" and that minor changes to the project, such as the relocation of a regulator station, made it substantially different.
In August, Nancy Wittenberg, the commission's executive director, issued a "certificate of filing" declaring that "the proposed gas main is consistent with the permitted use standards of the Comprehensive Management Plan," effectively freeing it from further commission review.
Several members of the commission board have said they disagreed with Wittenberg's determination.
Pinelands Commission Chairman Mark Lohbauer, an attorney, said after Wednesday's BPU vote that while South Jersey Gas' strategy for bypassing the commission appeared to be legal, "it raises the issue of whether the bylaws need to be revised."
"I know several commissioners feel they have a right to insert themselves in a decision of this magnitude," Lohbauer said. "This is not a question of someone asking to put in a driveway."