An intensely debated plan to allow a natural gas pipeline through preserved forest will go before the Pinelands Commission on Friday. Regardless of how the commission votes, the issue is unlikely to go away any time soon. The 22-mile pipeline proposed by South Jersey Gas is intended to serve the B.L. England power plant in Beesleys Point, Upper Township. The plant currently is powered by coal.

Supporters say the pipeline, which would begin in Maurice River Township, would provide jobs, improve air quality around the plant and reduce property taxes in the township.

However, environmental and citizens groups have fiercely opposed the proposal, saying construction poses threats to fragile ecosystems and violates the Pinelands Commission's rules. Some groups have threatened to sue if the commission approves a memorandum of agreement that would allow the pipeline through the Pinelands area in exchange for $8 million to the commission.

Advisory committee and full commission meetings have been packed since late summer, with people commenting on various aspects of the plan. Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg said Monday that more than 2,000 people had commented, either orally or in writing.

Multiple state and federal agencies must sign off on permits and agreements for the plan that address everything from endangered species to construction methods, utility pricing and air-quality requirements.

The Pinelands Commission's involvement is focused on a 14-mile section of the 21-mile pipeline that would run through land under the commission's jurisdiction. Of that section, 10 miles is tightly managed forest area, which has strict development restrictions. Infrastructure projects in that area can only be completed if the project directly benefits residents of the Pinelands.

In the director's report, Wittenberg and staff members defended the proposed memorandum of agreement and stated that many of the concerns commenters cited were based on misreadings of laws and regulations. The report noted that the pipeline will be built within existing paved roads and shoulders. "As a result, and as confirmed by Commission staff, there are no adverse impacts to the resources of the Pinelands associated with the proposed natural gas pipeline," the report stated.

The report also addresses criticism that the memorandum violates state regulations because the agreement would involve a public utility company and a state agency and the company would be in charge of construction. Pinelands staff wrote in the report that state regulations never explicitly say that the state agency must do the construction. Additionally, staff wrote, the commission's mission and state regulations not only focus on protecting and preserving the environment, but "encourage compatible economic" activities.

Pinelands Preservation Alliance Executive Director Carleton Montgomery described the legal arguments in the director's report as "Orwellian," saying the crux of the arguments supporting the memorandum of agreement glossed over much of the commission's focus and the true intent of rules in the Pinelands areas.

"It is so bad that it shows you just how far this agency has sunk and lost track of its mission that the executive director of the Pinelands Commission could sign such a document," Montgomery said.

While the pipeline proposal only was introduced publicly in late spring, other documents show that the plan was well on its way by then. An April agreement with the Board of Public Utilities between South Jersey Gas and R.C. Cape May Holdings, the company that owns the power plant, included the details and route of the proposed pipeline.

The agreement details much of the pipeline's plan, noting that construction is estimated to cost about $90 million and about 42 percent of that would be paid by the power plant's owner.

How much the power plant's owner would pay for the gas remains private - 24 pages of the BPU agreement are redacted because South Jersey Gas said the information was proprietary.

Shortly after the MOA draft was made public the day before Thanksgiving, members of the public as well as commissioners noted that there may be conflicts of interest. Commissioner Robert Jackson, who represents Cape May County, said at a December meeting that the payment and the agreement with the BPU gave the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Late last month, Commissioner Ed Lloyd was ordered by the state's Attorney General's Office to recuse himself from voting on the proposal. The reason, the state told Lloyd, was because he was on the board of the Eastern Environmental Law Center, and that created a conflict of interest. The center had sent notice to the commission in early December highlighting a mistake in the address in the notice for the public hearing. According to people present at the meeting, Lloyd walked out and recused himself from voting on the issue. He has since filed an appeal.

At about the same time Lloyd recused himself, four former New Jersey governors, Tom Kean, Brendan Byrne, Christine Todd Whitman and James Florio, sent a letter to the commission, saying the proposal would "compromise the integrity" of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan and encourage future development that goes against what the plan directs.

On Tuesday, environmental group Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility filed a complaint with the state Ethics Board regarding two other commissioners. The 2013 financial disclosure forms for commissioners William Brown and D'Arcy Rohan Green list personal investments with various oil and natural gas companies. The investments, N.J. PEER Director Bill Wolfe said, create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Wolfe, who has been an outspoken opponent of the pipeline, said Lloyd was forced to recuse himself despite not having a financial stake in the project.

"If Ed Lloyd is forced to stand aside, these two should join him in the hallway," Wolfe wrote in a news release.

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If you go

The Pinelands Commission meeting will be held 9:30 a.m. Friday at 15 Springfield Road in Pemberton Township, Burlington County.

Doors to the building open at 9 a.m. and doors to the meeting room will open at 9:15 a.m.