Last Wednesday’s by the White House that it's speeding up the review of the Susquehanna-Roseland electricity transmission line project was like a finger in a socket for environmentalists and others fighting the upgrade.
The snail’s pace of the National Park Service’s study process, to date, has suited the opponents just fine in stalling any work.
Opponents don’t want to see new transmission poles towering 195 feet above woodlands and lakes, schools and backyards. Nor do they want an extra 500 kilovolts of power coursing overhead along new lines.
This project has been kicking around for nearly four years now. Public Service Electric and Gas Company and PPL Electric Utilities are seeking to upgrade an aging transmission corridor currently carrying 230-kilovolt lines. Starting at the Susquehanna station in Pennsylvania, the line travels 45 miles through New Jersey once it crosses the Delaware River. It stretches through Andover, Boonton Township, Byram, East Hanover, Fredon, Hardwick, Hopatcong Borough, Jefferson, Kinnelon, Montville, Newton, Parsippany, Rockaway, Roseland, Sparta and Stillwater before ending in Roseland.
PSE&G officials say the project is critically needed to prevent power outages beginning next year. It was ordered based on studies by PJM Interconnection, the regional power transmission organization. But PJM has .
Both Pennsylvania regulators and the NJ Board of Public Utilities approved the project. Then the National Park Service took a crack at it. Because the upgrade would run through the Delaware Water Gap National Park, the park service needs to evaluate it.
The park service has held numerous hearings and studied the line’s impact on everything from vistas and natural and historic sites to birds and sound. In an updated newsletter last month, the park service stated its draft environmental impact statement would be ready for public comment this winter. The service is considering several alternatives for the line and already has received 6,000 comments from a very engaged public.
The delays so far have pushed the expected completion date back to 2015.
How the fast tracking of the project will affect that project review is not entirely clear, but it worries opponents.
Jeff Tittel, head of The New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said the expedited review would threaten all the work the park service has done, close the public out of the process and support the use of dirty coal-generated power.
"It is absolutely wrong that the President is using this program to circumvent the environmental assessment and public process when it comes to putting an unnecessary power line through our national treasures, Tittel said.
Administration officials said the Susquehanna-Roseland project, and six others also fast-tracked, will help bring greater reliability to the nation’s electric grid. They also boasted the project will create 2,000 jobs.
Scott Olson, a Byram councilman and line opponent, said the administration is choosing temporary construction jobs for a short-term project at the expense of "New Jersey’s ability to economically develop offshore wind projects that would create permanent, sustainable jobs in a new, expanding renewable energy industry for our state."
This is a great time to use jobs as a way to garner support for a project. Certainly, long-term, continuing jobs would be better than temporary construction slots. And clean energy like wind and solar power are much better than burning coal.
It’s also critical not to cut the public out of the process. The problem is making sure people can participate without unduly delaying a necessary project. Critical reviews do need to happen to preserve the beauty of the Delaware and Appalachian Trail vistas.
But if the power goes out because the lines can’t handle demand, very few people are going to care about looking at a spectacular hillside full of autumnal color while their food rots in the refrigerator.
It’s all about balance. Can an expedited review achieve that balance? New Jersey is about to find out.
Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.