Understanding the PennEast Pipeline

The PennEast Pipeline was officially born in January 2018 when it was approved for construction on a federal level, but it has been in discussion since 2014. For years, communities’ concerns about the pipeline have created several roadblocks for approval and construction. It’s easy to form an opinion as soon as one hears the word “pipeline,” but what is it actually? Who is proposing it? Who is opposing it? Where will it be, and what are the possible outcomes of it running through communities? This article answers these questions for readers of Southsider.

What is the PennEast Pipeline?

The PennEast Pipeline is an underground natural gas pipeline set to span 120 miles, through 2 states, 4 counties, and 6 townships, including Bethlehem. It aims not only to bring heating and energy to New Jersey and Pennsylvania homes, but to cut the costs of doing so and to provide jobs in the construction and maintenance of the pipeline. Residents of Pennsylvania and New Jersey may have heard of “Marcellus Shale” – a major factor in the pipeline’s existence. Marcellus Shale is a large rock formation housing “84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas and 3.4 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas liquids.” 

The idea is that the pipeline will carry natural gas from Marcellus Shale through PA and into NJ

A map of the proposed route for PennEast
Photo Credit: Penneastpipeline.com

What do supporters say about the pipeline?

PennEast, the company that is proposing the pipeline, argues that the pipeline will benefit communities by creating jobs and clean energy as well as locally produced energy. It advertises that the pipeline will result in cleaner air and reduced carbon emissions. It presents graphics of a healthy, happy environment, and promises over 12,000 new jobs. It reiterates the fact that this is local American energy transported through a pipeline built by Americans – our neighbors, even. The FAQ section of their webpage is extensive and user friendly – https://penneastpipeline.com/faq/ – answering questions for homeowners, landowners, concerned parents, and environmentally conscious citizens.

A look at the construction of the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline in Lebanon, PA
Photo Credit: Rachel Rosenfeld, Sierra Club PA

The pipeline’s construction and maintenance will present jobs that need to be filled. PennEast advertises an interest in employing people in the communities that the pipeline will pass through – focusing not only on American labor but local labor. Another branch of support for the pipeline centers around the idea that natural gas is clean energy. This statement is a highly debated one. Natural gas is often argued as cleaner than coal, but it is certainly more polluting than wind and solar. It is also relatively safe to burn – emitting 50% less carbon dioxide than coal. Lastly, natural gas in the case of the PennEast pipeline will be local. The Marcellus Shale is relatively local to most communities surrounding the pipeline’s proposed route. These communities and others will also be directly able to pinpoint where it is their energy comes from. And, the pipeline will have been constructed locally and by peers. 

An interesting aspect of the PennEast website is that there is a page dedicated to links of studies on the topic of natural gas pipelines and their impact (or lack thereof) on the property values in residential areas directly surrounding the pipeline. The studies do not say that the pipeline increases property values, but instead state that there is no adverse effect, or at least no correlation or causation between decreasing residential property values and proximity to a natural gas pipeline. Because these studies are being utilized by the industry to promote their pipeline and product, they cannot be relied upon for unbiased opinion. They do reveal that citizens are concerned about how pipelines may impact property values and the beauty of neighborhoods and communities.

Even opponents of the pipeline agree that the act of burning natural gas isn’t the most dangerous part – the transportation and extraction is the more delicate process, and pipeline proponents have in place safety measures in this arena. Government regulators under the Obama presidency approved the pipeline’s safety. According to PennEast, 99.999997 percent of natural gas moves safely though interstate transmission pipelines. They also state that there will be 24/7 monitoring for leaks, and in the unlikely event that there is one, highly trained personnel will be on the scene promptly. PennEast also highlights its commitment to helping build and maintain existing communities. The PennEast community connector grant program offers opportunities for communities in which the pipeline would be constructed to apply for grants. With the grant money, community members and organizations can engage in any project along the proposed pipeline route. These projects can be environmental, educational, job focused, or safety focused.. The aim of the grant project is to make it clear that PennEast wants to work and collaborate with communities and their potential concerns.

What do opponents say about the pipeline?

While natural gas emits 50% less carbon dioxide and is cleaner than coal, many opponents struggle to understand why the $890 million construction costs shouldn’t be funneled into the cleanest energy – solar and wind. Additionally, arguments have been made to say that even though natural gas emits less carbon dioxide, it is just as polluting due to the content of the gas (methane) and the potential for pipeline leaks adding up. Extraction also causes pollution.A commonly cited critique and fear of the pipeline is in fact environmental issues. PennEast is set to pass through over 80 waterways, 40 wetlands, and 30 parks. The construction of the pipeline alone would disrupt local habitats, not to mention the maintenance mechanisms and potential leaks. One interesting point comes from an analysis done by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) – who stated that the pipeline would have some “adverse environmental impacts,” but also that these impacts would likely be “…less than significant…with the implementation of PennEast’s proposed and our recommended mitigation measures.” Essentially, FERC took no side on the PennEast pipeline, and fueled the fire on both ends of the debate. Even with proposed and recommended measures, there will be negative environmental impacts, and that is assuming that all measures are taken.. Additionally PennEast has given reason for citizens to believe that they do value protecting the environment – as they have recently proposed alterations to the route (33 of them to be exact) in hopes of protecting certain wetlands and the species and habitats within them. It is this kind of consideration that PennEast supporters use to respond to PennEast critics. 

Another look at the construction process far a natural gas pipeline.
Photo credit: Rachel Rosenfeld, Sierra Club PA

It is worth noting that natural gas leaks are among the most dangerous. We’ve all seen photos of oil spilling into oceans, coating wildlife and polluting habitats. Some argue and many agree that natural gas spills are worse. For the most part natural gas consists of methane – a greenhouse gas with a more powerful contribution to climate change than carbon dioxide. Additionally, natural gas and its various components are highly flammable, and the smallest leak poses a significant risk of fire and or explosion. This is especially concerning considering that the safety measures will need to cover all 120 miles of PennEast, and that much of the pipeline runs beneath valued areas of nature and wetlands, as well as local parks and communities. Many critics struggle to understand why the pipeline is necessary. One of the most pressing issues of our time is climate change, and the idea of transporting natural gas through a pipeline under waterways, neighborhoods, and parks is unsettling to many, especially when the construction money could go to sources of renewable, clean energy. 

The PennEast natural gas pipeline is not without critics. In both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, resistance is high. Billboards and yard signs establish a distaste for the pipeline, activism groups have formed solely for this topic, and people who may not have ever engaged in any kind of civic engagement are educating themselves on the pipeline that is proposed to run under their backyard. The question for residents in Bethlehem is if we want the pipeline running through our community; then, we have the obligation to make our voices heard as we contact our elected representatives.

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