The George Washington Bridge and the Pinelands are at opposite ends of New Jersey—almost in different universes. One is a double-decker of steel and cable, groaning with bumper-to-bumper traffic. The other is a delicate, protected ecosystem, the intersection of pristine aquifers and seven counties of conifers.
One is the bailiwick of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the other is the fief of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission. Both these agencies are under the influence of Governor Chris Christie, who has recently come under fire for his strong-arm political style.
As it turned out, the 15-member Pinelands Commission was the agency more willing to stand up to the Christie administration. After a hard-fought battle, the sharply divided commission overruled its own staff and refused to give a green light to a 22-mile natural gas pipeline the administration supported. The line would cross a short stretch of protected forest to carry natural gas to a BL England power plant that has been ordered to stop using coal or shut down.
Many residents and environmental advocates opposed the pipeline—as did four former governors from both parties.
The commissioners who voted against the pipeline may have been influenced by what happened at the bridge, where the governor's senior staff apparently persuaded the Port Authority to deliberately tie up traffic in a bizarre exercise of political muscle. That incident has become a cause celebre, with Christie forced to deny that he is a bully.
In any event, on a tie vote of 7-7, Pinelands commissioners on Friday turned down a proposed memorandum of understanding with utility regulators that would have let the pipeline through in exchange for an $8 million payment toward a conservation fund. Eight yes votes were needed to approve the project. South Jersey Gas can come back with another proposal, so the fight may not be over.
The vote was a rare and narrow victory by environmentalists over a governor who they say has dealt harshly with their favored causes, especially by making it easy for regulated industries to get waivers from environmental rules.
According to opponents, the fact that the vote over the pipeline was tied was a direct result of brass-knuckle New Jersey politics.
One of the commissioners, an environmental law professor at Columbia University, recused himself after he was told in December that the Christie administration objected to his working on the board of an environmental law clinic that had made a minor procedural request involving hearings on the pipeline.
That commissioner, Edward Lloyd, is appealing his exclusion from the decision. He told InsideClimate News on Friday that he's not even sure the state's ethics authorities had formally ruled on the matter.
In the interview and in a written statement read at the commission's meeting by its chairman, Lloyd said he was not participating or even expressing any opinions about the pipeline decision "out of an abundance of caution."
His abstention alarmed pipeline opponents, who expected the vote to be razor thin and did not know how some commissioners would vote.
By Friday, though, the question of the pipeline and the professor had grown from a local zoning donnybrook to take on the stature of scandal, what some called another example of the Christie administration flexing political muscle to silence opponents.
Some pipeline opponents tried to connect the distant dots between the Pinelands and the suddenly notorious bridge.
The Sierra Club of New Jersey noted that the law firm of David Samson, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority, represented the Texas company that bought the power plant that the gas pipeline would feed.
Samson "was chair of the governor's transition team and was later appointed by Christie to chair the Port Authority. This involvement raises serious questions about why this project is being pushed and what threats of retaliation have been made to commissioners if they do not support the project," the environmental group said before the vote.
Jeff Tittel, the Sierra Club's chapter head, said in an interview before the vote that the Pinelands issue and the GW Bridge affair were "part of a systemic pattern,"—that each was an "abuse of power."
"There has been broad executive over-reach by the governor on a number of issues, including the environment," said Doug O'Malley of New Jersey Environment, another advocacy group.
At a December hearing, Bill Wolfe, the New Jersey head of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), called the treatment of Lloyd "an extraordinary piece of raw political power."
"For them to knock out a commissioner of the Pinelands without any paper trail, without any opportunity to rebut, is just a raw exercise of power," he said. "It's un-American. It's wrong."
Lloyd, who was appointed in 2002, long before Christie became governor, said he was put on the commission "to represent environmental views." The governor appoints seven members, the Pinelands counties appoint seven more, and one represents the U.S. government.
Environmental advocates objected not only to the treatment of Lloyd, but to the basic approach the state took to pushing the independent commission to open a path for the pipeline.
They said the commission should have forced the private companies involved to apply for a waiver to the land use regulations. That would have set a high bar for approval, and was the approach endorsed by Lloyd shortly before he was silenced.
Instead, the staff negotiated what environmentalists considered a sweetheart deal between the commission and the state utility board—an approach that sidestepped the commission's strict guidelines for building in protected forests.
Under rules the Pinelands Commission is supposed to follow, a pipeline could only be approved in the area if its principal purpose was to benefit those who live there. This pipeline, as well the electric plant, would have supplied energy elsewhere in the state as well.
The commission's staff determined that the pipeline did not qualify under the official standard—but instead of letting the company apply for a waiver, they arranged the deal between the commission and the utility board.
That kicked off a series of fractious, even disorderly hearings in December.
Those who favor the pipeline arrangement said the $8 million payment, enough to buy thousands of acres of land and support a visitor center and education programs, would offset any disturbance from laying the line and provide a buffer against any future development. They argued that the pipeline would follow the route of an existing road, and that cleaning up the power plant would improve local air quality.
Those who oppose it said the power plant should have been shut down, not cleaned up. When it was fired by coal, they say, it operated only during periods of peak demand; with natural gas, it would run continuously.
Janet Tauro and David Pringle of New Jersey Clean Water Action argued that the issue in the Pinelands is about much more than protecting this sliver of the remarkable ecosystem – it is about reshaping New Jersey's energy and climate landscape.
One of the environmentalists' chief complaints about Christie is how he has dealt with the issue of climate change, often seen as a litmus test for conservatives seeking presidential office. Last month ICN reported that the Christie administration has ignored climate change as it rebuilds parts of New Jersey that were devastated by Superstorm Sandy.
Wolfe, of New Jersey PEER, noted that the proposed $8 million conservation payment to the commission could be seen as a kind of bribe.
In any event, he said, it was small change when compared to the cost of carbon dioxide emissions that the natural gas plant would emit. If New Jersey were still a participant in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade system joined by several northeastern states, those emissions would have cost many millions more, he said.
But Governor Christie has unilaterally pulled New Jersey out of the carbon trading initiative—an action that itself had the environmentalists back in court this month, arguing that he had overstepped his powers.