Plans to build a natural gas pipeline from Millville to Upper Township are moving forward, even as critics and supporters continue to debate the value of the project.

Approval by the Pinelands Commission would be the last major hurdle for the project, which has already received the go-ahead from the state Board of Public Utilities, the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Last week, the Pinelands Commission directed staff to draft a memorandum of agreement, a precursor to a resolution approving the 22-mile-long pipeline. This came after a presentation at the Sept. 27 Policy and Implementation Committee Meeting by South Jersey Gas representative Bob Fatzinger.

The meeting was the first between the board and a South Jersey Gas representative. Thirteen members of the 15-member board were present, Pinelands Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg said.

"The commissioners had a lot of questions, and that was good," Wittenberg said. "A lot of back and forth."

The memorandum of agreement will describe the pipeline project and detail possible measures South Jersey Gas could take to offset its impact on the Pinelands. Commitments to such measures are a requirement for the project's approval because it does not meet all of the Pinelands Commision's standards, spokesman Paul Leakan said. Examples of possible offset measures are permanent land protection and monetary contributions.

If approved, the pipeline would provide natural gas to the B.L. England power plant in Beesleys Point, Upper Township, allowing it to meet state and federal clean-air requirements. The plant currently burns coal. According to South Jersey Gas, the pipeline would also back up the fuel supply for as many as 140,000 customers in Atlantic and Cape May counties if the primary fuel supply is compromised.

Fatzinger was asked to speak after a presentation on the project by Pinelands Commission staff at the August policy and implementation meeting failed to address all the board's questions.

Fatzinger's presentation focused on several questions raised at the August meeting. Among the topics discussed were the company's reasons for choosing the route it did, the findings of its environmental impact studies and the value of the pipeline as a backup power source for its customers.

Fatzinger said getting to address the board's questions directly made for a productive meeting.

"This presentation is probably 20 minutes in length (without questions)," Fatzinger said. "We spent at least an hour and a half, an hour and 45 minutes, total."

After the presentation, members of the public were invited to voice their opinions. Speakers did not address Fatzinger directly, but the board could ask him questions triggered by public comment. This portion of the meeting lasted another hour and a half, Fatzinger said, and opinions were mixed.

Critics of the pipeline argued its construction would violate the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, which prohibits, in some areas, development that does not "alleviate extraordinary hardship or ... satisfy a compelling public need."

While Fatzinger's presentation claims the pipeline would reinforce the fuel supply for more than 28,000 South Jersey Gas customers in the Pinelands, Theresa Lettman, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance director for monitoring programs, argues this is not benefit enough to justify approval.

"They did give some figures, but primarily it's to service the B.L. England plant," Lettman said. "It violates the Comprehensive Management Plan."

The Pinelands Preservation Alliance, other groups and individuals opposed to the project also argue that routes outside the Pinelands should be further explored. Fatzinger discussed two eliminated plans in his presentation, one of which did not pass through the Pinelands. This plan was dismissed because it would displace residents and be detrimental to the environment, he said.

Furthermore, Fatzinger claims because the entirety of the proposed pipeline route is directly under the road or on the grass shoulder, its impact on the Pinelands would be minimal.

The drafting of the memorandum will take one to two months, Wittenberg said. Should the board approve the memorandum, a public hearing will be held, after which point the 15-member board will give a final judgment.

Contact Braden Campbell: