The New Jersey Senate is set today to vote on whether or not to appoint Governor Chris Christie’s nominee, Robert Barr, to the Pinelands Commission. The situation is more than a political one: Barr would replace Robert Jackson, potentially tipping the scale in terms of an upcoming vote about a 22-mile natural gas pipeline that would run through the Pinelands, a 1.1 million acre national preserve in southern New Jersey.
A vote in January 2014 regarding the pipeline was gridlocked at 7-7 with one abstention. Should Barr be appointed today, some fear it would mean another vote with a different outcome.
In October of last year, Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee that it was a “risky proposition” for anyone to assume he would vote yes to the pipeline. However, he has since declined to comment, and he has previously worked for Senator Jeff Van Drew, one of the pipeline’s biggest proponents.
The proposed pipeline would deliver natural gas through parts of Cumberland and Atlantic counties to the BL England power plant on Beesley’s Point in northern Cape May County. Currently, the plant is run on coal and expected to shut down if a natural gas source can’t be found.
Proponents of the pipeline say that it will allow the plant to operate using cleaner resources, as well as providing much-needed jobs for Cape May County, which has some of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
Opponents are concerned that approving this pipeline could lead to further fracking for natural gas, a method that is detrimental to the environment.
In addition, there are legal concerns. The pipeline would run through the protected Pinelands forest area, going against the Pineland Commission’s rules. Also, there is some evidence that the Pineland Commission may have been heavily influenced by Governor Christie’s party. Opponents of the project went to court and forced the release of a series of emails sent between the Commission and Christie’s office which seem to indicate that the governor may have been trying to stack the vote.
The Christie administration denies the charge. Spokesman Kevin Roberts called it “just more baseless nonsense from overwrought partisans who oppose any action by this administration, no matter how factually sound the policy is.”
Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, which first requested the release of the emails, argues that the interaction had potentially significant effects. “Even the redacted emails show how intimately the governor’s office was involved on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “That’s not the way an independent agency is supposed to operate,” Montgomery said.