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Proposed pipeline construction generates debate

Princeton Ridge, an area in the northern region of the town of Princeton and the target of ecological preservation efforts, is now the site of a natural gas pipeline expansion by Williams Co., an energy infrastructure company.

The town of Princeton has filed for neutral “intervenor” status on the project, along with Environment New Jersey, Food and Water Watch and the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. These environmental groups oppose the pipeline’s construction, citing concerns over Princeton Ridge’s sensitive wetlands and wildlife, according to Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

The full project, called the Leidy Southeast Expansion Project, involves a $600 million process of adding about 30 miles of pipe along existing Transco pipeline routes in a process called looping, Williams spokesperson Christopher Stockton said. These loops would span New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The construction in Princeton involves adding about 1.2 miles of pipe parallel to an existing Williams pipeline installed in 1958.

The town intervenes

Williams is currently in the process of receiving approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a federal agency that regulates interstate pipelines.

The Princeton Environmental Commission recommended intervenor filing to the town council as a “fairly standard” action among towns that have pipelines going through their jurisdiction. This status, filed in October, gives them no power in the approval process, but simply means that these groups are party to the process and that all correspondence and documentation between Williams and FERC must also be sent to them, according to Stockton.

“It allows the town to have a seat at the table and to be able to formally make comments,” Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert said. “By being an intervenor … you are able to interject yourself legally if necessary.”

Filing for intervenor status is not uncommon for stakeholders who are neutral or even supportive of a project, Stockton said.

Currently, FERC is reviewing Williams’ application for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, the major permit needed for the construction to go forward, Stockton explained. O’Malley said FERC has a record of routinely approving applications like these.

“What we’re seeing also is our environmental agencies and state agencies — and certainly FERC — not really review these proposals as well as they should,” O’Malley said. “Time after time we’ve seen approvals even when there’s an environmental need not to approve these pipelines.”

The pipeline’s potential environmental impacts

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One of locals’ major objections to the original proposal concerned the width of the construction corridor for the pipe. Normally, the project would require a construction corridor about 85 to 120 feet wide. Due to concerns raised by local residents and environmentalist groups, Williams has altered its plans to keep the corridor within the existing cleared tree line, which is about 50 feet wide, according to Stockton.

Lempert called this alteration to the original construction plan “a major victory for the town and the environment.” She said the company still may have to clear some trees in places where the right of way is not large enough.

Apart from the width of the corridor, environmentalists say the project would endanger the vulnerability of wetlands, streams and other wildlife in the Princeton Ridge area. Other safety concerns include the danger of gas leakage if the existing pipeline is damaged during construction and if Williams resorts to blasting to clear the heavy boulders on the Princeton Ridge, Lempert added.

Michael Schwartz, a visiting professor in the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment with 35 years of experience in the energy industry, said there is a low probability these concerns will be a major issue.

He predicted the construction of the additional pipeline would not have “major adverse environmental impacts” as there had previously been a pipeline in the same area.

“You have an existing right of way which was at one point disrupted by the construction of the original line, so this isn’t a virgin piece of property,” Schwartz said. “Notwithstanding that, if the right of way goes through a potentially sensitive environmental area, like wetlands, potentially the construction might either encroach on those areas or have some impact … The likelihood of that disruption is very low because there’s already been construction here.”

Though O’Malley said it was “good to see that the applicant is trying to minimize environmental damage,” he said Environment New Jersey was still not satisfied with the level of attention FERC is giving to the environmental aspect of the construction.

“Even if they are developing the pipeline in the right of way, there’s a lot of environmental disturbance that would happen,” O’Malley said. “This pipeline would tear an ecological scar through the heart of some of New Jersey’s most pristine environmental areas.”

The pipeline’s opponents

Environment New Jersey is concerned FERC is going to approve this pipeline without doing enough due diligence on the project, O’Malley said. Part of the group’s opposition came from the fact that he said there was “no compelling need” for the additional pipeline. Stockton begged to differ.

“In 2001, we only had 2 percent of the nation’s gas coming from shale. By 2015, the projections are that number will actually be closer to 45 percent, so you’re seeing a dynamic shift in supply.” Stockton said. “Now we’re expanding our existing infrastructure in order to accommodate this changing dynamic.”

Schwartz said there were many benefits in this overall expansion and in the increased supply of natural gas.

“The more gas, then the lower the price of gas and the lower amount of coal generation. Gas displaces coal generation,” Schwartz said. “One could argue, if you were interested in CO2 emissions, that there is a benefit of increasing deliverability of gas because you’ll support additional natural gas power generation and you will displace coal.”

O’Malley also said the source of the natural gas was an environmental concern.

“There’s a real environmental cost, not just in the damage this pipeline would cause but also in its reliance on a dirty fossil fuel,” he added.

The pipeline’s effect on Princeton

While Lempert acknowledged that Williams would have to pay property tax to the town if the pipeline were built, she said there would be “no local benefits at all” from the construction.

“We are getting gas to power our homes, but I don’t think this expansion is necessitated by increased use of gas by us,” Lempert said.

Although this expansion does not directly benefit natural gas customers in Princeton, Stockton said it would strengthen the reliability of the overall Transco system, which provides gas to Princeton.

Though Williams began its pre-filing process in January, the company did not file its application with FERC until September. They do not expect a decision until some time this summer, Stockton said. If they receive approval, Williams proposes to begin construction in spring 2015 and begin flowing gas by December 2015.

Even if the project is approved, O’Malley said Environment New Jersey would continue its opposition efforts.

“I can say I don’t think we’re going to give up, especially if FERC doesn’t address these very valid concerns we have,” O’Malley said.

Stockton said he is aware of opposition by environmental groups to the expansion, but it will not halt Williams’ efforts to build.

“We’re not going to change their minds, and they’re not going to change our mind. We have a job to do,” O’Malley said. “We can respect their opinions, but the fact of the matter is that 50 percent of all the gas consumed in N.J. comes through our pipeline system, so we have a responsibility to our customers.”