After the MOA was defeated in 2014, South Jersey Gas appealed the decision in court but also went back to the drawing board on how it pitched the pipeline plan. On May 21 of this year, it submitted a slightly amended application, claiming “new information” proves the pipeline project is in compliance with the CMP after all.
According to Fatzinger, South Jersey Gas is arguing that the B.L. England plant will send 86 percent of its power to the Pinelands by 2019 and improve the reliability of service to Atlantic City Electric’s predominantly Pinelands-based customers.
“After the vote in 2014, we looked at this and thought, You know, we’re serving a customer in the Pinelands most of the time, so I think we meet the CMP,” Fatzinger says.
Anti-pipeline activists are dubious.
“Oh, so South Jersey Gas only now realizes this plant serves the Pinelands? I think that’s complete nonsense,” says Montgomery. “This is just another way to get around regulations.”
But so far, the strategy is working.
Additionally, South Jersey Gas is no longer applying under the banner of a public entity serving a public need. It is seeking approval as a private developer that means the application did not go to the Pinelands Commission for a vote. Instead, it went to Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the commission staff. In mid-August, Wittenberg’s staff issued a certificate of filing to South Jersey Gas saying the pipeline application was compliant with the CMP.
Wittenberg’s decision was a significant blow to anti-pipeline advocates, but it was hardly a surprise.
“Nancy was pushing for this to begin with, and I would assume she’d be happy if the project moved forward,” says Ficcaglia. “I think she probably feels it’s the right thing to do, but she doesn’t have a long history with the commission and she doesn’t understand the nuances. But I’m sure the people who are pressuring her are making it seem as though it’s not a big deal.”
Wittenberg’s decision to issue a certificate of filing is not an outright approval of the project, but rather a critical step in allowing the process to continue. The South Jersey Gas application must still go before the Board of Public Utilities for a hearing and vote, and then back to the Pinelands Commission for a final review—which will not include a commission vote or public hearing.
Even if the project moves through these steps without a hitch, activists will no doubt challenge the project in court, which means the battle over these 10 miles of Pinelands may continue into 2016 and beyond.
“The bottom line is that there is a plan to protect the integrity and stability of the Pinelands, but it only works if you respect it, regardless of who comes knocking at the door or who is in Trenton at the time,” says Montgomery. “Whether or not it gets approved, I think people need to understand that this political arm twisting and procedural maneuvering is a prescription for disaster for the Pinelands in the long run.”
Nick DiUlio is South Jersey bureau chief for New Jersey Monthly.Click here to leave a comment