How the NJ Pinelands Commission became a tool of the fossil fuel industry

pinelands commission

The New Jersey Pinelands covers around 20 percent of the state of New Jersey—the largest pristine, mostly-undeveloped patch of land on the East Coast. It also sits on top of a 17 trillion gallon freshwater aquifer. In 1978, the United States passed the Pinelands Protection Act, making the Pinelands the country’s first officially sanctioned nature reserve.

The Pinelands Protection Act created the Pinelands Commission, a bipartisan body containing a board of 15 voting members. As declared in its Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP), its one and only purpose is to “preserve, protect, and enhance the resources of the Pinelands”. According to the CMP, the only public infrastructure allowed must be “intended to primarily serve the needs of the Pinelands”.

Building
Building

However, on February 24, 2017, the commission voted 9-5 in favor of building a 15-mile natural gas pipeline through the heart of the Pinelands; a pipeline that almost exclusively benefits the profits of two fossil fuel companies for whom the vast majority of its customers (according to the commission itself, somewhere between 70 and 86 percent) reside outside of the Pinelands region.

The Pinelands Commission justifies this approval by asserting that the only destination of its gas, the BL England plant (BLE), is a facility that is located within the Pinelands, and that this satisfies the requirement that it “primarily serves the needs of the Pinelands”. In fact, they explicitly state that whether or not the gas will serve Pinelands residents is “not necessary to demonstrate CMP conformance”. But while the BLE plant is in the Pinelands, it is outside of the protected area under the commission’s jurisdiction.

What is the gas for? 

The amount of natural gas that can go through the pipeline is potentially significantly more than the power plant could process. There is also another bigger pipeline being proposed to start in the town of Chesterfield, an area just northwest of the Pinelands. This second pipe will run southeast and both it and the Pinelands pipe will end in roughly the same area: relatively close to the New Jersey coastline.

While the Pinelands pipeline primarily defaces the environment, the Chesterfield pipe will be laid under the street in front of many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of homes.  Some of those homes are as close as 50 feet from the pipeline, which has a blast radius of a quarter mile.

The characteristics of these pipes suggest that much or most of the gas will be used, not for domestic energy, but for export. It is not unreasonable to speculate that part of this plan may also be intended as a last ditch effort to save Atlantic City.

What happened to the Pinelands Commission?

In 1995, the United Nations called the Pinelands Protection Act “still perhaps the strongest state land-use legislation in the country.” So what exactly happened that transformed such a successful government environmental enforcer into what is now essentially an arm of the fossil fuel industry?

A substantial part of the answer is that for the past five years, the Chris Christie administration has aggressively replaced members of the commission known to be against the pipeline, with people who do whatever it takes to make it pass. Governor Christie is also suspected to have used numerous vicious acts of retribution.

In 2010, Christie appointed Nancy Wittenberg as Executive Director, a non-voting staff position. Wittenberg is the former head lobbyist of the NJ Builders Association, who claimed a “passion and commitment for preserving New Jersey’s environment”. Wittenberg’s staff was shown to unethically communicate with both the Christie administration and the fossil fuel company.

At the same time, and at the behest of the Christie administration, an anti-pipeline board member was very questionably forced to recuse himself from a critical vote. Wittenberg has also twice unilaterally approved the pipeline, declaring it was no longer necessary for the board to vote on it, a decision struck down by the courts.

On November 30, 2013, just over one month before the pipeline’s first critical vote, an anti-pipeline commissioner passed away after serving for eight years. His county’s freeholder board appointed a pro-pipeline successor three days before his funeral.

The pipeline’s first vote in January 2014 resulted in its shocking defeat with a 7-7 deadlock. This was despite the recusal and the replacement of the deceased commissioner. Two of the votes against the pipeline were by Christie appointees. Over the next months, and in seeming retribution, Chris Christie decimated the Pinelands Commission.

The board’s chairman was demoted, an 18-year veteran anti-pipeline commissioner was replaced by her county, and Christie himself appointed two new pro-pipeline members. He also, for the first time in the commission’s history, vetoed the minutes from a monthly meeting; minutes which contained a budget giving Wittenberg and her staff their first raise in four years.

Although there have been tensions and fights throughout the history of the Pinelands Commission, until today, the Pinelands has remained generally unscathed. But now, with this 9-5 vote and the five years leading up to it, the Pinelands is experiencing “by far the biggest crisis [it has faced] in 40 years,” according to Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey’s Sierra Club. “It is also a Pandora’s box with lots of bad to follow”.

The original planners and commissioners feared exactly this possibility: that a pipeline would cut entirely through the Pinelands protected area, where the source, destination and beneficiaries of that energy would all be completely outside of the protected region.

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