UPPER TOWNSHIP - State Sen. Jeff Van Drew is trying to save a project to bring natural gas to the B.L. England Generating Station, saying it's about jobs and a clean environment.

Van Drew and Assemblyman Robert Andrzejczak, both D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said they will begin by investigating why the Pinelands Commission in January rejected the pipeline that would have carried gas to the plant on the Great Egg Harbor Bay that currently burns coal and oil. Van Drew said the only way to find a solution is to understand what went wrong with the application process.

"I'm going to look at every aspect of this process and analyze how we can make it right. Make no mistake about it, we need to build this pipeline and I'm going to give it my level best to make it happen," Van Drew said.

The senator said he has already reached out to Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney for help.

The region suffers one of the worst unemployment rates in the nation, Van Drew said, and closing the plant would eliminate 60 jobs while at least 75 jobs related to construction of the 22-mile-long pipeline would never be created. He also said gas would burn cleaner than coal and be better for the environment.

"The casinos are tanking, unemployment is as bad as ever, and we're as seasonal as ever. This is an economic disaster for the region. If there is an upside, I don't know what it is," Van Drew said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club, argues there is an upside. He said a court order under the Clean Air Act is already phasing out coal at the plant, and even though it burns cleaner, natural gas adds to global warming concerns.

Tittel also argues the gas will come from fracking in Pennsylvania, a process that also carries ecological questions. He said the smokestack at the plant is not a good image in a tourism economy.

"The best solution is to make it a base for an offshore wind farm. I think a cleaner environment is offshore winds, and that would create a lot of jobs," Tittel said.

Van Drew, however, disputes that killing the gas pipeline would mean an end to coal. He said plant owner RC Holdings could still get a waiver from the state Department of Environmental Protection to continue burning coal. RC Holdings could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Van Drew also argues the plant is needed as the energy network, or grid, has struggled to keep up with demand during this unusually cold winter. There have even been brownouts during the summer during peak demand. He said it also offers a second gas pipeline to Cape May County, which increases public safety if the first one is compromised.

"We need energy and have an opportunity to be a little more energy-independent," said Van Drew.

Tittel argues there is enough energy in the region and the plant is not really needed for the power grid.

"New Jersey is building four new gas plants and just rebuilt one. The senator should realize there are better ways to grow jobs," said Tittel.

The Pinelands Commission killed the proposal in a 7-7 vote but did not close the door completely. The vote was to approve an agreement between the commission, South Jersey Gas and the state Board of Public Utilities. Some commissioners had a problem with the BPU joining with a company it regulates. Some argued South Jersey Gas, a private entity, was required to apply on its own for a "waiver of strict compliance," which has tougher standards to meet. South Jersey Gas could still file another application but has not made a decision yet.

Joanne Brigandi, a spokeswoman for the utility, was pleased about support from Van Drew and Andrzejczak.

"While we continue to study our options for moving forward, this support shows how vital this project is to the needs of our region. It will add jobs, lead to significant emissions reductions from the plant and allow us to provide enhanced service reliability to our customers in Atlantic and Cape May counties," Brigandi said.

Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo also was thankful for the lawmakers' efforts. The township gets $6.2 million a year in energy receipts taxes for hosting the plant. Palombo said a plant closing "could be a real problem" for the local budget and he noted that, as a Beesley's Point resident, he was looking forward to cleaner air quality. He argued opposition to running a pipeline through the pinelands "was ridiculous" since most of the route is next to existing roads.

"We are in total support of the conversion from coal to natural gas, and we'll work with the senator to accomplish that," Palombo said.

Van Drew said he would be supportive of wind turbines or solar panels at the site but with the natural gas conversion as well.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711