A $91 million project to run a 22-mile natural gas pipeline from Millville to the B.L. England power plant in Upper Township might not have happened if the economy had not crashed in 2008.

At that time, plant owner RC Cape May Holdings and its parent company, Houston-based Rockland Capital, had the permits ready to upgrade the facility with filters to clean its coal emissions.

But then capital markets dried up as the nation dropped into a recession, and since there was already immense environmental pressure on coal, the owners started looking at other options. Eventually, they struck up a conversation with South Jersey Gas.

Those talks led to the current plan: running a 2-foot-wide gas main from the Cumberland Energy Center, a South Jersey Gas customer, to serve as a secondary supply to Cape May County and also service B.L. England so it can convert from coal and oil to natural gas.

The result is that South Jersey Gas gets a massive new customer, Rockland Capital gets to produce much more efficient energy that it can sell back to the grid more easily, and locals get even cleaner air.

This would have been the preferred solution from the beginning, but it apparently took the financial collapse to make planners realize it was possible.

“We would have done that all along,” Rockland Capital Asset Manager Bob Rapenske said.

It will be at least a year before construction starts. South Jersey Gas and Rockland Capital are still putting together applications to the state Board of Public Utilities and Department of Environmental Protection, and the permitting process will take the entire year.

The projected cost is $91 million, although that depends entirely on whether the proposed route for the pipeline is approved.

As currently imagined, it would start at the Cumberland Energy Center on the southeastern edge of Millville, owned by Houston-based energy company Calpine Corp., run southeast along Routes 49 and 50 through Maurice River Township to Upper Township, then head east on Tuckahoe Road and intersect with an Atlantic City Electric power line easement running north to Beesleys Point.

That route traverses pinelands and wetlands, so the goal is to use as much previously disturbed land as possible to limit environmental impact, said Chuck Dippo, vice president of engineering services and system integrity for South Jersey Gas.

“There are many benefits to repowering the plant with clean natural gas,” he said, “but we have to be cognizant of our local environment in the towns and municipalities we pass through in terms of where to lay the line and what we might encounter along the way.”

Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said that even work on or around developed land can affect undeveloped land.

In the past, he said, road crews have dug up rare plants growing on shoulders, then filled in the trench with fill dirt trucked in from outside the area, from which invasive plants grow and spread into the forest.

“You can’t assume that just because something is along a road that there isn’t an environmental impact,” he said.

Montgomery said he knew of at least three rare plants along the preliminary proposed route, according to state Pinelands Commission surveys. He also said that Pinelands regulations should keep utility infrastructure such as the proposed pipe to a minimum.

Local leaders have also reached out to South Jersey Gas to get more information.

Maurice River Township Mayor Andrew Sarclette said he hoped the project could lead to getting natural gas service to people in the southernmost part of his community, where homes have only propane and oil heating.

“I do plan on investigating it further,” he said.

Rapenske said the company also needed to work with Atlantic City Electric to negotiate laying pipe through its easement. Using the railroad right-of-way that carries coal cars to the plant is also possible.

When the fully converted plant is operational, which should be by the end of 2016, B.L. England will be far more active than it is now.

The plant was built in 1963 and is one of the oldest in the state. It is not only a major air polluter but is also very inefficient. Since it is expensive to produce energy at the facility, RC Cape May Holdings is limited in what energy it can sell back to the grid.

As Rapenske explained, the company sells energy into the PJM Interconnection market at a certain rate. The organization that manages the market buys the least expensive energy from the most efficient plants first, followed by the less efficient plants, depending on demand.

Currently, B.L. England operates at far less than full capacity. Its second coal-fired unit produces most of the power, but it only runs at full capacity less than half the year, primarily during the summer, Rapenske said.

Its other coal unit is limited to two-thirds of its capacity whenever it does run, and the third unit, which is powered by oil, almost never runs. If it does, it is mainly for annual emissions testing, Rapenske said.

Converting to natural gas will boost the total capacity of the plant from 450 megawatts to 585 megawatts, and the company will be able to run the plant far more often because it will be easier to market the energy, Rapenske said.

“This gas turbine we’re putting in is one of the most advanced in the world,” Rapenske said. “It’s a very, very efficient method of operation.”

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