A Fish Named Chubsucker Incites Rage Against N.J. Pipeline Plans

  • Natural-gas opponents say Christie policy favors utilities
  • Not-in-my-back-yard issue across state clinging to open space

Not in my backyard, under my street, through my woods, near my dream house or, for that matter, around my chubsuckers.

Thousands of New Jerseyans want nothing to do with proposals to build or expand roughly 15 natural-gas pipelines. No matter that utilities say the projects are necessary in a part of the U.S. where 45 percent of electricity comes from natural-gas combustion. No matter the promises of better reliability, four years after New Jersey’s costliest natural disaster left 1.4 million customers without power.

Chubsucker
Chubsucker
Soruce: Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images

The companies, critics say, have an ally in Governor Chris Christie, a Republican running for president, with policy changes and swift reviews to counter conservation regulations and to prolong reliance on fossil fuels over renewable energy. At risk, in the most densely populated U.S. state, is a landscape where Revolutionary War soldiers pounded the British, and the red-bellied turtle and the creek chubsucker -- that’s a fish -- are treasured species.

“For me to get a fence permit -- a fence permit! -- I have to spend $1,500, four months, go to town hall and meet with an architect and an engineer,” said Naor Chazan, a 31-year-old marketing executive from Chesterfield. For utilities, though, “all kinds of magic happens in their favor.”

Developers are proposing new pipelines to take advantage of the price premium for Northeast gas over cheap Appalachian supplies. Prices at the Leidy hub in Ohio have tumbled 52 percent over four years amid surging supplies from the Marcellus shale formation, while gas at the Algonquin hub near Boston has gained 39 percent. Heating costs in New England and the Mid-Atlantic jump during the winter, when demand is highest, and pipeline bottlenecks limit deliveries from other regions.

Homeowners’ Fervor

One project, by PennEast Pipeline Co., would run from the Marcellus and Utica basins to Pennsylvania into New Jersey, crisscrossing a land where homeowners’ fervor to preserve 18th-century battle sites colors even the most picayune of property-use matters. At least 12 local governments have approved resolutions opposing the 118-mile line, which would handle 1 billion cubic feet per day.

In Stockton, along the Delaware River, construction would level a stand of 100-year-old oak trees and bisect the driveway of a country retreat owned by Jeffrey R. Shafer, a former Citigroup Global Markets Inc. vice president and U.S. Treasury undersecretary.

“If we really needed a pipeline, I think: You have to put it somewhere,” Shafer, 71, a Yale University-trained economist, said by telephone. In an eight-page analysis of a PennEast economic-benefits report, though, he picked apart demand, cited a trend toward renewable energy and dismissed projected job creation. The PennEast payoff for New Jerseyans, he concluded, would be “almost invisibly small.”

PennEast -- a project of Spectra Energy Partners, AGL Resources, NJR Pipeline Co., Public Service Enterprise Group, SJI Midstream and UGI Energy Services -- doesn’t see it that way. Its website predicts “significant savings in the form of cheaper natural gas commodity and transportation costs” for more than 1 million customers. PennEast, subject to environmental review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, expects to start shipments in 2017.

“We’re thinking not for tomorrow, not for today, but years down the road,” said Patricia Kornick, a PennEast spokeswoman. “The pipeline is going to help meet increasing consumer demands.”

Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, said by e-mail that critics were resorting to “the same overblown rhetoric we have come to expect from the same partisan characters.”

Future Demand

Oversupply of natural gas in the U.S. Northeast has outpaced utilities’ transmission networks, leading to growing pains, according to Bloomberg Intelligence pipeline analyst Michael Kay.

“The big push here is to get gas to New England, which is starving for it, and where future demand is forecast,” Kay said. Politically, he said, New Jersey is “a little friendly” compared with New York, where greater areas of forest trigger extensive environmental reviews.

In January, a decision by the state public-utilities board drew a lawsuit from the Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey conservation groups, which allege that it improperly issued approvals for the South Jersey Gas Co. project. The 22-mile pipeline would cut through the Pinelands National Reserve, an 1,800-square-mile swath that is crucial to South Jersey’s drinking water and home to plant and wildlife in danger of losing their habitat. Four former New Jersey governors have come out against the construction.

The utilities board, whose members are appointed by the governor, doesn’t comment on pending litigation, a spokesman, Greg Reinert, said by e-mail. The Pinelands Commission, also appointed by the governor, declined to comment, through spokesman Paul Leakan.

“The companies see this as a growth opportunity,” Tom Gilbert, a campaign director for the Far Hills-based New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said in an interview. “By getting into the transportation business and owning the pipeline, they’ll be able to recoup many of the costs by building it into their rates base.”

Little Comfort

Another pipe, the 28-mile Southern Reliability Link proposed by New Jersey Natural Gas Co., also would cut through the Pinelands. Michael Kinney, a company spokesman, said Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 disaster that almost leveled some Atlantic Coast towns, “made us look at our entire system.”

“It is specifically about ensuring safe, reliable service for our customers,” he said. Ninety percent of the Southern Link would run beneath roads, he said.

That’s no comfort to Chazan, the homeowner in Chesterfield, a central New Jersey suburb where the median home value is about $400,000, more than twice the nation’s. A compression station to support Southern Link would be 1 mile from the residence he calls his dream home. Last year, while his wife was expecting twins, he became an activist, going door to door with flyers that spelled out the potential health effects from volatile organic compounds, byproducts of transmission.

“I’m like, ’Hi, I’m a neighbor. I’m not trying to sell you cookies,”’ said Chazan, recalling his pitch. “‘You’ve got a half-million-dollar house here and you need to know about this.’"

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