A Wyomissing-based company seeking to build a $1 billion natural gas pipeline through two states received approval from the U.S. District Court in Trenton, N.J., to gain access to the land of 136 affected property owners in New Jersey under the federal power of eminent domain.
PennEast Pipeline LLC said the ruling on Dec. 14 allows the company to acquire survey data from the properties to help ensure minimal environmental impacts along the 120-mile route.
Earlier this year, the company acquired approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build the pipeline from Luzerne County through Carbon and Northampton counties and into western New Jersey, ending in Hopewell Township, Mercer County. The project has been in the works since 2014.
“The ruling is disappointing but it’s not unexpected, given the track records of the courts,” said Tom Gilbert, campaign director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit based in Far Hills, N.J. “This doesn’t change anything from the standpoint that PennEast still needs permits from NJDEP and Delaware River Basin Commission. We will continue to fight to make sure those agencies make the case that those agencies have both the authority and the grounds to deny permits for the project. It simply can’t be built in a way that meets the strict environmental protections given the environmentally-sensitive area.”
PennEast said it developed the pipeline route more than three years ago in consultation with the NJDEP. About half the route is now co-located adjacent to existing utility right of ways, primarily overhead power lines.
PennEast is still working with federal and state agencies, primarily the NJDEP, and anticipates beginning construction in 2019, said Patricia Kornick, spokesperson for PennEast. The pipeline would be operational after a seven-month construction schedule, she added.
PennEast will complete land and environmental surveys, which are part of the requirement from the federal certificate issued to PennEast in January, she said.
“We worked with great success with the majority of landowners,” Kornick said. “We are establishing the timeframe for when we begin the survey work.”
In the New Jersey District Court ruling, there are 136 property owners but some have multiple parcels, she said.
“Landowners are compensated for temporary and permanent impacts, under the easement agreement,” Kornick said. These property owners also retain ownership and use of their property, including for active farming, she added. The only restrictions generally include planting trees or building structures directly on top of the right of way.
Gilbert said there is still another legal challenge pertaining to the decision in January by FERC to issue a certificate to PennEast, which was required to start construction. Gilbert said a host of plaintiffs, including the New Jersey State Attorney General and the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, a consumer watchdog industry, are challenging FERC’s approval of the certificate and the Federal Court of Appeals has agreed to hear that case. Legal briefs are due by plaintiffs on Dec. 21, he added.
“There is still pending litigation,” Gilbert said. “Ultimately, we don’t think this project will go forward because of the environmental impacts.”
PennEast Pipeline’s member companies include NJR Pipeline Company, SJI Midstream, Southern Gas Co., Spectra Energy Partners and UGI Energy Services.