Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney are now among the supporters of a controversial plan to construct a natural gas pipeline to repower the B.L. England Generating Station, Sen. Jeff Van Drew announced Tuesday.

The senator met with the pair Monday to discuss his renewed push to build the pipeline, which he says will create jobs and improve energy resiliency in South Jersey.

“I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page, and we are,” said Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic.

The B.L. England plant in Upper Township, which currently burns coal, must repower with natural gas by 2016 or face closing due to tightening restrictions in emissions. An initial plan to repower the plant was rejected in January by the Pinelands Commission after a tie vote. The plan requires commission consent because the proposed pipeline would run through a protected area of the Pinelands.

That plan faced strong opposition from environmental groups and conservationists, who argued it would lead to pollution and disturb the Pinelands.

However, Van Drew argues that B.L. England would operate cleaner if it burned natural gas and the pipeline would have minimal impact on the environment because it travels largely underground, near and parallel to a state highway. Further, it would reinforce the area’s energy supply and bring jobs to a region that sorely lacks them.

“Our region has the highest unemployment in the state of New Jersey,” he said. “If we lose these jobs, again, we’re sending out the wrong message.”

Van Drew said the construction of the pipeline would create nearly 100 jobs and ensure more jobs with the continued operation of the B.L. England plant. Conversion to natural gas, he said, could create hundreds more on top of that. He also argues the loss of the station would devastate the ratable base in Upper Township and cause a ripple effect across the county.

The Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan largely bans development such as the pipeline, but there are exceptions. The initial plan sought to get past these regulations through a memorandum of agreement, which allows the Pinelands Commission to lift restrictions so long as the developer commits to offsetting a project’s impact.

The January vote denied such an agreement, but Van Drew said other means of bypassing the regulations exist. One possibility would be pursuing a compelling public need waiver, which would require South Jersey Gas, which sponsored the pipeline push, to demonstrate a need for the project and prove no feasible alternatives exist. Van Drew said the energy resiliency provided by the pipeline would qualify as such a need.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, was among the most vocal detractors of the initial plan. He characterized Van Drew’s renewed push as “strong-arm” tactics and an abuse of power.

“You can say you’re disappointed in the commissioners, you wish they did it a different way,” Tittel said. “You can look to come in and do the pipeline a different way. You don’t have to resort to what I consider bullying.”

Van Drew said he has not yet decided how to move forward, nor does he have a timeline. He said Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, also supports the project.

The offices of Christie and Sweeney did not respond to requests for comment.

Contact Braden Campbell:

609-463-6719

Been working with the Press for about 27 years.