Gov. Christie has nominated two South Jersey residents to replace members of the Pinelands Commission who rejected a proposed gas pipeline through protected Pinelands forest, raising fears among some environmental groups that he wants a commission more favorable to his views.
Christie has proposed Dennis Roohr, mayor of North Hanover in Burlington County, and Robert S. Barr, secretary of the Cape May County Democratic Committee, for three-year terms.
If approved by the Senate, they will succeed D'Arcy Rohan Green, a Christie appointee whose term expired last June, and Robert Jackson, a Jon S. Corzine appointee whose term expired in 2012.
Roohr did not return a call for comment Tuesday and Barr could not be reached. Jackson did not return a request for comment.
Several state environmental organizations that oppose the pipeline have criticized the appointments as either retribution against Green and Jackson for their January votes against the pipeline, or part of an effort to stack the commission with members inclined to vote for the pipeline if it comes up again.
"We'll be seeing many more names coming before the [legislative] summer break at the end of June," said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, who said it appeared Christie was seeking to "purge" dissident members of the commission. Tittel said he did not have specific knowledge of Roohr's or Barr's views on the pipeline.
Christie's spokesman, Kevin Roberts, called such speculation "disrespectful" of the nominees and "baseless nonsense from overwrought partisans who opposed any action by this administration, no matter how factual the policy is."
Christie has not publicly endorsed the proposed 21-mile-long pipeline, which South Jersey Gas hoped to build from Maurice Township in Cumberland County to serve an electric generation plant in Cape May County.
If approved, about 10 miles of the pipeline would have run under existing roadways through protected forest in the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve.
The reserve's charter bars the installation of new utilities in protected areas, however, unless they would primarily serve local residents.
South Jersey Gas had sought a waiver, called a Memorandum of Agreement, to build the $90 million pipeline, saying the proposed route would cause less environmental damage than several alternative routes. But the commissioners voted 7-7, with one recusal, on the request. Without a majority, the application was denied.
Last week, however, Edward J. Graham, chief executive of South Jersey Gas' parent company, told investment analysts he was "incredibly optimistic" a pipeline to the plant would be in operation by 2016.
Graham did not say if his company was hoping to win approval for the same route through the Pinelands.
Joanne Brigandi, director of communications for South Jersey Industries Inc., said Tuesday that the company was "still reviewing options" and "has not come to any decision" on the next route it will propose.
If approved, the 22-inch line would transport natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania to the B.L. England electric generation plant in Beesleys Point in Upper Township.
Rockland Capital, the Texas-based owner of the plant since 2007, wants to convert an existing coal-fired plant on the site to gas, at a cost of about $400 million.
If he chooses to, Christie could tip the balance of the Pinelands Commission with members inclined to grant some kind of waiver to the pipeline project.
Governors appoint seven members of the 15-member commission. All of those appointments (including Jackson's and Green's) have expired or will expire next month. These include Chairman Mark Lohbauer, whose term expires in June, and Candace Ashmun, a member of the commission since its founding in 1979. Both voted against the pipeline.
The freeholder boards of Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Ocean Counties each appoint their own representatives, and the secretary of the interior appoints one commissioner.