By Andrew Maykuth, The Inquirer
SERGEANTSVILLE, N.J. – A blanket of snow overlay the idyllic landscape of farms, stone walls, and New Jersey’s oldest surviving covered bridge last week. Alix Bacon, a regional manager for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, swept her arm across the postcard vista.
“All of this is preserved,” said Bacon, whose organization played a key role in securing the development rights to maintain the region’s rural character.
Last year, a consortium of utilities announced plans to build the 110-mile PennEast Pipeline to deliver natural gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region to an interconnection near Trenton. The proposed route would cut a swath across this part of Hunterdon County hugging the Delaware River.
Local landowners have risen up – colorful anti-pipeline protest signs sprout from the roadsides of most communities along its route. Residents say they fear the pipeline will cause environmental harm, permanently scar the terrain, lower property values, and put their lives at risk.
“The pipeline is universally despised up here,” said Stephanie Jones, whose late parents, Donald and Beverly Jones, were local leaders in the conservation and preservation movement.
The PennEast project is one of a proliferation of new or upgraded pipelines proposed to tap into the Marcellus gas boom. Business leaders in Philadelphia are organizing a pipeline to the city that they say would fuel a renaissance of energy-intensive manufacturing.
Along each pipeline route, citizens groups have organized in opposition. They are unmoved by the pipeline companies’ arguments that they are delivering affordable, life-sustaining energy to millions of customers. Most towns on PennEast’s route in New Jersey are not now served by natural gas utilities.
“Communities up and down the East Coast are waking up and saying, ‘This is a reality we don’t want any more,’ ” said Kristin McCarthy, a former member of the Delaware Township Council in Hunterdon County, who declined to run for reelection last year to devote herself to the pipeline fight.
Aided by the Internet and social media, the local groups are increasingly sharing information. They also get support and encouragement from a network of regional and national environmental groups that regard pipelines as the next great battlefront in the effort to curb fossil-fuel use to slow climate change.
“Because of this great increase in knowledge and organization and engagement of organizations like mine, people are coming to realize there is something they can do – they are not just at the mercy of what the pipeline company wants to do,” said Maya van Rossum, head of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
The target for their wrath often is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency charged under the Natural Gas Act with reviewing applications for the construction and operation of interstate gas pipelines. That includes the $1 billion PennEast project.
Activists have flooded FERC’s Washington headquarters with comments.
“Pipelines are facing unprecedented opposition, from local and national groups, including environmental activists,” FERC chairwoman Cheryl A. LaFleur told the National Press Club last week. “We’ve got a situation here.”
Donald Santa, chief executive of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said his member companies faced a “challenging environment” to get approvals. “It certainly has called upon the pipeline companies to up their game in terms of their outreach,” he said.
The PennEast pipeline would begin in Luzerne County and cross under the Delaware River at Riegelsville, in the northern tip of Bucks County. In New Jersey, the pipeline would skirt the quaint riverfront towns of Frenchtown, Stockton, and Lambertville before terminating in Mercer County. Construction would begin in 2017.
UGI Energy Services, a subsidiary of UGI Corp. of Valley Forge, is building and operating the PennEast pipeline. UGI’s Pennsylvania gas utilities would be among the customers.
In New Jersey, affiliates of Public Service Electric & Gas Co., South Jersey Gas, New Jersey Natural Gas, and Elizabethtown Gas have ownership stakes in PennEast. So does Spectra Energy Partners, a big national pipeline operator.
PennEast is now going through a “pre-filing” process before submitting its formal application with FERC in the summer. It recently altered the proposed route, increasing the mileage that would be “co-located” along other utility rights of way. About 45 percent of the pipeline now would adjoin existing utility corridors – mostly power lines – including much of the route through Delaware Township.
Opponents dismiss the plans to co-locate with other utilities. “It’s still a massive new footprint and scar across communities,” van Rossum said.
A corridor up to 125 feet wide will be needed during the construction, which will shrink to a 50-foot permanent easement after restoration, said PennEast spokeswoman Patricia Kornick.
Some residents don’t want their local governments to spend money fighting a losing cause. But McCarthy said resistance is essential.
“If you look like a town that’s going to roll over, you’re going to get a lot more pipelines in the future,” she said.