PennEast pipeline pulling the plug

State officials submitted a letter to Third Circuit Court of the U.S. Court of Appeals on Monday, September 20, stating that New Jersey has reached an agreement in principle with the PennEast pipeline company, which has been seeking condemnation of 42 state lands for construction of an interstate gas pipeline.

The announcement comes on the heels of PennEast taking the state all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend its right to exercise the federal eminent domain power to condemn the preserved lands.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court kept intact more than seven decades of legal precedent for the families and businesses who benefit from more affordable, reliable energy,” said Anthony Cox, Chair of the PennEast Board of Managers.

The PennEast Pipeline was a proposed 116-mile line intended to move Marcellus shale fracked gas from the Appalachian Mountains in northeast Pennsylvania across the Delaware River to the edge of Mercer County, New Jersey.

Environmentalists opposing the pipeline have argued that the project would cut through the last contiguous forested areas in central New Jersey, and cross 88 waterways, 44 wetlands and 30 parks, while developers estimate the project would have created over 12,000 direct and indirect jobs and lower utility costs millions of dollars annually.

“PennEast claims they aren’t abandoning the project, but actions speak louder than words, and this move clearly suggests the polluting pipeline won’t happen,” said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and ReThink Energy NJ.

“The news that PennEast won’t move ahead with trying to condemn state lands to develop an unneeded fossil gas pipeline is a huge and welcome development,” said Gilbert.

“I welcome the news that PennEast is standing down from its attempt to seize state-owned land to build a destructive and unnecessary pipeline,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski, whose district includes most of the property sought after for the gas pipeline.

“This significant development is a major win for the environment and for our coalition of landowners, elected officials, and activist groups opposed to the pipeline,” said Malinowski.

The company abandoned similar condemnation suits to seize land in Pennsylvania in August. The dismissal of these condemnation suits is a strong indication that the project will not go ahead, since the pipeline can’t be built along the proposed route without these lands.

The 5-4 decision was condemned by scientific and environmental groups that said energy companies should not have the power to seize state land,

The opinion will set precedent for state-level opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure built by private developers.

As Washburn University law professor Janet Thompson Jackson has written, social justice provisions are largely absent from eminent domain law.

The seizure of property tends to have an “undue burden on poor people and communities of color in a way that resembles Discovery-era takings of land from [Indigenous peoples],” Jackson wrote.

According to research published in May 2021 in the journal GeoHealth, natural gas pipelines, which carry the risk of explosion and are detrimental to property values in the communities that surround them, are overwhelmingly concentrated in U.S. counties with higher levels of social vulnerability.

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