A proposed natural gas pipeline would allow the B.L. England power plant to convert from coal and oil to natural gas.

Columb Higgins

CHERRY HILL – The New Jersey Pinelands Commission is expected to vote on a natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands proposed by South Jersey Gas at its Friday, Feb. 24 meeting.

An agenda for the meeting on the Pinelands Commission’s website includes a resolution to approve the pipeline with certain conditions. The pipeline previously received the go-ahead from Pinelands Commission staff but last year the state Appellate Division remanded it to a full vote of the Pinelands Commission.

The 22-mile pipeline would run from Millville to the B.L. England power plant in Beesleys Point. About 15 miles would run through the protected Pinelands, which is why the Pinelands Commission must approve it. It is part of a planned $400 million repowering of the B.L. England plant from coal and oil to natural gas. The power plant, at one time considered the dirtiest in the state, must shut down its remaining boilers by May under an Administrative Consent Order from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The meeting is set for 9:30 a.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill. The ballroom can fit about 1,500 people but environmental groups said Monday they are afraid the Pinelands Commission will go directly to a vote on the project without hearing public comment.

Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said Monday, Feb. 20 that his organization has challenged that process in court, and hopes for a ruling in its favor from the Appellate Division by Friday.

“The point is the commission’s executive director made a decision in 2013 to approve this project come what may,” Montgomery said of the process. “She’s hoping this will be the last act.”

In a Feb. 17 report recommending approval of the pipeline, Pinelands Commission executive director Nancy Wittenberg wrote that the public was able to provide comment in person at the Jan. 24 Pinelands Commission meeting. The commission later extended the deadline for written public comment to Feb. 8, after many people were not able to enter the meeting at the St. Ann’s Parish Center in Browns Mills, she wrote.

The commission received a little over 6,000 written comments on the pipeline, Wittenberg wrote.

Among the conditions for approval is a limit on the gas flow to B.L. England of 125,000 MCF (thousand cubic feet) per day, according to the recommendation report. Any improvements to infrastructure that may result in additional gas flow, or redirection of gas from B.L. England, would require another application to the Pinelands Commission.

South Jersey Gas is permitted to interrupt service to B.L. England during the peak winter season to maintain gas flow to existing customers. The pipeline would also serve as a backup in case the single existing line serving Cape May County is ever disrupted, according to the company.

Wittenberg wrote that an agreement between South Jersey Gas and the power plant’s owner, RC Cape May, requires that 125,000 MCF per day of natural gas be provided to B.L. England 350 days per year for 20 years, demonstrating the pipeline was intended to “primarily serve only the needs of the Pinelands," which is mandated by the Pinelands’ Comprehensive Management Plan for any public infrastructure in the Pinelands. That information was not included in South Jersey Gas’s original application, which was effectively defeated in January 2014 on a 7-7 vote, she wrote.

The power plant is located within the Pinelands and the pipeline will serve it about 95 percent of the time, according to the report. Electricity produced by the plant would normally go through the grid to Atlantic City Electric customers, and that customer base represents 69 percent of the population of the Pinelands, Wittenberg wrote.

“Thus, with regard to electric generation, the BLE plant primarily serves the needs of the Pinelands,” she wrote.

Montgomery said that the Feb. 17 recommendation report is “incredibly flawed.” The PPA submitted comments earlier this year claiming that the vast majority of electricity customers and demand to be served by B.L. England are outside the Pinelands.

“The larger point though is that the Pinelands plan was designed to prevent it from being a conduit for big infrastructure,” he said. “This pipeline is exactly what the Pinelands was created to prevent.”

He sees a dangerous precedent for infrastructure being run through the Pinelands for use by power plants or other facilities near the coast, where it might be easier to build. What starts as a source of gas for a power plant could be later used for other purposes, he said.

“We have a pipeline that is four times too big,” Montgomery said. “A 447 megawatt power plant could not use anywhere near the capacity for this pipeline.”

The capacity for the 24-inch pipeline is 700 psig (pounds per square inch gauge) but will operate at a maximum pressure of 437 psig due to constraints in the transmission system, according to the report.

Montgomery asked why the company would be willing to pay more to build a pipeline that exceeds its needs.

“That just doesn’t make any sense,” Montgomery said. He said ratepayers will end up picking up part of the cost of the pipeline.

Repowering the plant is also not necessary because B.L. England is no longer needed, according to the PPA. But Wittenberg wrote that the state Board of Public Utilities found there was a need for capacity in B.L. England’s service area in December 2015, especially after the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant retires in 2019.

The new pipeline would run underground, parallel to and within rights-of-way of public roads, including Route 49 and Route 50, according to South Jersey Gas. Approximately two miles are beneath Atlantic City Electric’s existing power line corridor. It will also pass under two streams along the way, and another condition of approval is having a licensed engineer with experience with horizontal directional drilling present at all times.

According to South Jersey Gas, the pipeline – called the Cape Atlantic Reliability Project – will reinforce delivery for 142,000 customers and provide B.L. England with the necessary natural gas supply needed to convert power sources. That will make it one of the cleanest power plants in the state, according to the company.

The company said the pipeline will be designed and built according to state regulations, which exceed federal regulations. Safety systems will include automatic and remotely controlled valves, and will be subject to routine inspection, according to a press release.

An interconnect station and remote-operated valve station are proposed to be built in Upper Township as part of the project.