The PennEast Pipeline Company, LLC, a coalition of five energy companies, put forward a plan to construct a 120-mile natural gas transmission pipeline running underground from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, to Mercer County, New Jersey.
The line will carry about 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas to local homes daily, supplying the area with inexpensive, domestically-produced energy. The route would cut through Northampton County.
According to PennEast, the pipeline would have saved Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents about $435 million in energy costs if it had existed in the winter of 2017-18.
At first glance, the pipeline, which is scheduled for construction starting this year, appears to be a win-win for PennEast and local residents. However, some communities along the route have spoken out against its possible repercussions, including environmental damage, eminent domain issues and safety risks for people living near the line. Though branded as mutually beneficial, the PennEast Pipeline has proven to be a point of contention.
The five energy companies that make up PennEast are Enbridge, NJR Pipeline Company, SJI Midstream, Southern Company Gas and UGI Energy Services. The group seeks to provide a “low-cost, American-made energy source” by “leverage(ing) one of the country’s most prolific, affordable sources of natural gas,” said PennEast spokeswoman Pat Kornick.
The source of natural gas — Marcellus Shale — has the ability to affordably power homes, and the PennEast Pipeline is a way to bring that power to Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents.
Contrary to the jarring images of hulking machinery and flaming water faucets associated with natural gas in the media, the PennEast Pipeline would not directly contribute to the process of extraction — called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Rather, it will be a transmission pipeline — a way to transport natural gas between systems.
“Think of it in terms of a highway,” Kornick said. “A transmission pipeline is designed to get the natural gas from point A to point B.”
While this may come as a relief to residents, transmission pipelines still risk environmental damage during the construction period or in accidents when the line is active.
“The gas itself can escape and leak into the atmosphere,” said Dork Sahagian, an earth and environmental science professor. “And methane is about 85 times stronger (of a) greenhouse gas than (carbon dioxide). If you leak even one percent of the natural gas, that one percent is just about as much of a greenhouse global warming potential as the 99 percent that’s burned and turned into (carbon dioxide).”
Local environmental groups and residents use these concerns to fuel their fight against the pipeline.
Jacquelyn Bonomo, president and CEO of environmental advocacy group PennFuture, said that pipelines are associated with an increase in methane emissions as well as short term damage like disruption of land and habitat fragmentation. She also said that they put water systems at risk in the event of a leak or explosion.
In anticipation of these risks, PennEast has made efforts to reduce environmental damage and ensure that the pipeline is minimally invasive. Part of this involved a lengthy approval process with “checks and balances” to help ensure safety and compliance.
Kornick said the project was under review for more than three years, and multiple federal and state agencies were involved. PennEast ultimately received a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, approving the project. During this process, more than 23 regulatory agencies provided input.
PennEast has communicated with the community to design a route that is minimally invasive. Kornick said more than 100 route options were considered to determine what the least-harmful and most efficient route would be.
Even with an optimized path, some residents face property disruption and other unpleasant results associated with the laying of the pipeline. Some residences fall within a “blast zone” — the radius at which damage would occur if a pipeline were to explode.
While an explosion is not a likely risk for the PennEast Pipeline, it is still possible.
Roy Christman, a member of the anti-pipeline group Save Carbon County, said the line will cut diagonally across a large chunk of his corn and soybean farm. In addition to disrupting farming procedures, it will put his house — which falls within the blast zone — at risk.
“We get to continue to farm on top of pipeline, but it’s only down three feet, and if you hit it with some kind of farm equipment, there’s always a chance it could blow,” he said. “It’s a really disturbing thing.”
Another neighborhood that was initially located about 200-300 feet from the pipeline — far within the 950-foot blast zone — negotiated with PennEast to move the line, according to John Gallagher, Bethlehem Township Third Ward Commissioner. However, even after distancing it from the houses, it was not far enough away to make residents feel at ease.
Gallagher said after further negotiations with PennEast, it is only willing to move the pipeline about 400 feet away from the community.
He said the community is against the pipeline not only because of the potential risk of an accident, but also because its proximity will likely devalue their properties.
“They’re concerned that should any of them want to sell their property, it’ll be devalued because of the location of the pipeline,” Gallagher said. “They much prefer that the pipeline not be built.”
Despite backlash, the project is moving forward. The anticipated 2019 construction process will take about five months, Kornick said. Whether it proves to be a giant step forward for energy, or a bigger step backward for the environment, remains to be seen.
“At the most fundamental level, pipelines, other infrastructure and the buildout of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania is the absolute wrong pathway for a country, a state and a planet that needs to deal with climate change,” Bonomo said.