The Watershed Institute applauds today’s federal appeals court ruling that upholds New Jersey’s sovereign rights and halts, at least temporarily, the proposed PennEast natural gas pipeline slated for central New Jersey.
This decision upends a federal trial court ruling in December 2018 giving PennEast possession of more than 40 properties preserved by the state, many in partnership with counties, municipalities and private land trusts, for the proposed pipeline that would run through Hunterdon and Mercer counties in New Jersey.
In June, the state Attorney General’s office argued against PennEast’s condemnation of public lands, including those in which the state holds a public interest, before the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.
Today’s groundbreaking appeals court decision found that New Jersey’s sovereign rights prohibit PennEast from condemning lands where the state holds easements or other property rights, including privately owned lands protected by the state Farmland Preservation or Green Acres Program.
In issuing its ruling, the Third Circuit held that the federal Natural Gas Act, which PennEast had argued allowed it to condemn all needed properties along the path of its proposed pipeline, does not trump New Jersey’s sovereign immunity under the Constitution.
In order to build the $1 billion, 116-mile pipeline from northeastern Pennsylvania to Mercer County, PennEast filed suit in federal court to condemn 131 properties in New Jersey; 42 of those properties either belong to the state or have government easements for recreational, conservation or farmland use.
The state of New Jersey, counties, municipalities, and non-profit organizations have spent billions of dollars over the past few decades to preserve farmlands, recreational lands, wildlife conservation lands and lands that provide important water supply and watershed protection. These lands are legally protected from further development. The Watershed and other opponents of PennEast have argued these important restrictions on preserved land cannot be ignored, a position upheld today by the appeals court.
Today’s court ruling means that PennEast’s plans have been effectively halted in New Jersey until the backers consider a new route or new strategy for the construction of the proposed pipeline. This ruling does not affect PennEast’s condemnation of privately held lands.
Even so, several hurdles still remain before construction would begin. Backers of PennEast still would have to convince the state Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) that the proposed pipeline wouldn’t adversely affect water quality standards under Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act. The PennEast Pipeline Co. would also have to convince NJDEP that they are entitled to the required permits.
“This ruling is a great victory in the fight against PennEast,” said Jim Waltman, executive director of The Watershed Institute. “We stand poised and ready to protect the safety of New Jersey’s waterways and environment.”