We've long supported the conversion of the B.L. England Generating Station in the Beesleys Point section of Upper Township to natural gas.

It's the best way to drastically reduce the amount of pollution coming from the plant while continuing to have reliable generating capacity in this corner of South Jersey.

So a recent decision by the Department of Environmental Protection to allow the plant to stay open for up to two years past a previous May 2015 deadline is welcome news. It should give owner Rockland Capital time to make the conversion to natural gas - and the long-term benefits of that conversion more than offset the downside of letting the plant continue to burn oil for now. The plant has already stopped burning coal.

All this is complicated, of course, by the Pinelands Commission's rejection in January of a plan to run a $90 million, 22-mile natural-gas line from Maurice River Township in Cumberland County to the plant because the line would have run through 10 miles of protected forest.

South Jersey Gas has appealed that decision to the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court, and it's likely the proposal will be reconsidered by the Pinelands Commission.

When it is, commissioners should take into account that many of the people who benefit from the power generated by B.L. England live in the pinelands. The new DEP consent order says that by 2018, the plant could provide 45 percent of the electricity in the Pine Barrens.

A new gas pipeline, by whatever route is ultimately chosen, would also strengthen the natural gas infrastructure of Cape May County. Only one line currently serves the county.

PJM Interconnection, the regional operator of our power grid, says that if the area loses B.L. England's generating capacity, utility customers would have to pay for new power lines and upgrades that could cost $144 million. New transmission lines would go through environmentally sensitive areas, including the pinelands. And in the time it took to construct them, customers could expect power outages and brownouts.

Folks who think that the plant could be closed and replaced by wind and solar power at the Beesleys Point site are dreaming. Neither solar fields or windmills could replace B.L. England's generating capacity.

South Jersey needs the B.L. England Generating Station. Right now, the plant does not meet clean-air standards - and that means the region needs it to be converted to cleaner-burning natural gas. In that context, a two-year extension to allow the conversion to take place makes sense.

Then, instead of becoming a closed, rotting industrial eyesore, B.L. England will be a modernized, gas-powered facility that will support the southern New Jersey economy well into the future.

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