The Pinelands Commission's rejection of a proposal to build a natural-gas pipeline to the B.L. England Generating Station in Beesleys Point was a major setback for South Jersey that - if not reversed - could have repercussions for years to come.

For the good of our region, the Pinelands Commission must reconsider this project, and I am committed to doing everything I can to make sure that happens. In the interim, I hope everyone involved will regroup and really consider the potential impact of not advancing the pipeline project. The fact is that we are at a crossroads when it comes to our economic and energy future, and this project is a major component in securing a stronger and more prosperous South Jersey.

Let me say first that I believe strongly that the pinelands need to be protected. I have long been an advocate for its preservation and will continue to support the protection of this area. However, it is important to keep in mind that this project would consist of putting a two-foot-wide natural gas pipeline underground along the right-of-way of a state highway. It would not result in a loss of wildlife, trees, or other vegetation, as some have suggested. It would not harm the pinelands in any way.

Not moving forward, however, could prove devastating. The Department of Environmental Protection recently ordered that the B.L. England plant cease burning coal. The plant employs nearly 100 people whose jobs would be lost should the pipeline project not come to fruition and the plant be forced to close. The project would also create an additional 75 construction jobs. To lose these jobs in such an economically depressed area of the state would cause incredible harm.

Losing the plant would also result in property-tax increases. The loss of a major ratable would mean an increase in property taxes in Upper Township and across the county. In addition, Upper Township would lose the energy receipts taxes that it receives from the plant. In effect, property taxes would go up for everyone in the county, but it would be a double hit for residents locally.

This is also about ensuring a reliable and sustainable source of energy in our region. I strongly believe in wind and solar. But until these and other sources of alternative energy are viable enough to support our needs, we must still rely upon other, more-traditional energy sources. Natural gas is one of the cleaner sources available, as it is significantly cleaner than coal. Converting the plant to natural gas would result in many fewer toxic and greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, and perhaps most important, there is currently only one line for natural gas running to Cape May County. If anything should happen to that pipeline, our entire area could potentially be without gas to heat our homes or cook our meals for several months until it could be repaired. Just imagine the situation we would have been in if that had happened this winter.

The proposed pipeline is a common-sense, clean and efficient way to increase our position on the energy grid. It is a way to ensure economic development in an area of the state with some of the highest unemployment and lowest per-capita income in the country and to sustain and create desperately needed jobs.

We have one of the worst job markets around and have been consistently at the bottom in both graduation and health statistics. We are losing more of our young people every year as they move away from this region. We need to come up with bold new ideas to stimulate our year-round economy. This project will not do that in one fell swoop, but it would be a significant step in the right direction.

The Pinelands Commission's rejection of this project was extreme. I do value the environment, and as mayor of a rural township for many years, I was committed to open space, farmland preservation and ensuring that the zoning of my township was appropriate. However, I believe people should be able to stay in the area, to both live and work here.

That is why I am going to do my level best to ensure this pipeline project happens.

Democratic state Sen. Jeff Van Drew is chairman of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee. He represents the 1st Legislative District, which includes Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland counties.

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