The head of the federal commission that will decide whether the PennEast pipeline gets built expressed concern in a recent speech over the “unprecedented opposition” to the construction of new natural gas pipelines, prompting new criticism from pipeline opponents.
“We have a situation here,” Cheryl A. LaFleur, director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27.
“Pipelines are facing unprecedented opposition from local and national groups including environmental activists,” LaFleur said. “These groups are active in every FERC docket, as they should be, as well as in my email inbox seven days a week, in my Twitter feed, at our open meetings demanding to be heard, and literally at our door closing down First Street so FERC won’t be able to work.”
LaFleur’s comments were blasted by opponents of the proposed $1.2 billion pipeline stretching through six counties from Northeastern Pennsylvania to Hopewell Township in Mercer County.
“My thoughts are with Harry Truman,” said Hopewell Township Mayor Harvey Lester. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
But Tamara Young-Allen, spokeswoman for the energy commission, said LaFleur’s comments should not be taken as derogatory.
“It’s simply that this is different situation that FERC has not experienced before,” Young-Allen said.
The pipeline proposal, currently under review by the energy commission, has drawn criticism for cutting through environmentally sensitive areas as it traverses Hunterdon and Mercer counties. Leaders in every New Jersey town where the PennEast Pipeline would be built have passed resolutions opposing the project.
LaFleur’s comments have ignited the latest in a string of recent criticisms by the project’s opponents.
Critics also have questioned the energy commission’s selection of Tetra Tech, a company with ties to a natural gas drilling lobbying group, to produce a required environmental study of the pipeline’s potential impact and have called on Drexel University to back away from a “seriously flawed” economic study released by PennEast claiming the project would spark more than 12,000 jobs.
Hundreds of opponents also came out to voice concern about the project at public meeting last week in Ewing, which renewed calls for additional meetings.
PennEast — a consortium of East Coast natural gas suppliers, including Public Service Electric & Gas and New Jersey Natural Gas, among others — says the 36-inch pipeline would carry 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, enough natural gas to heat 4.7 million homes, and it would lower energy costs for residents in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Plans to build the pipeline were announced in October, when PennEast made a preapplication filing with FERC, which reviews all pipelines that cross state lines. PennEast is expected to make a formal application to the commission later this year. If approved, the pipeline would begin construction in 2017, the company has said.
Maya K. van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, said she thinks it’s good that LaFleur is acknowledging that there is a large and growing resistance to natural gas pipelines. But Rossum said she fears LaFleur is missing the point.
“The growing public outcry is because of their incomprehensively bad behavior, the absolute whole cloth failure to represent the public interest,” Rossum said. “They are clearly an ally of the gas industry and we know it and we see it not just in decisions but in the behavior they have toward the public.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, also said LaFleur’s comments are evidence of a cozy relationship between the energy commission and the industry it regulates.
“These comments just show that she shouldn’t be on FERC,” Tittel said. “Instead of regulating the industry she’s supposed to regulate, she’s cheerleading for them.”
Patricia Cronheim, lead coordinator for Hopewell Township Citizens Against the PennEast Pipeline, said she was encouraged by LaFleur’s comments.
“It’s heartening that FERC is noticing that so many people are opposed,” Cronheim said. “This is only the beginning and we’re not going to stop.”