(2016 file photo, courtesy the Stop the PennEast Pipeline Facebook)

A judge from the U.S. District Court of New Jersey ruled Dec. 14 that the PennEast Pipeline Company can acces lands in New Jersey, both public and private, through eminent domain in order to conduct environmental surveys with the intention of showing that its planned 120-mile natural gas pipeline will not be a harm to the environment.

Judge Brian Martinotti ruled that 136 property owners who had been denying PennEast access to their land for the purpose of conducting surveys must give that access to PennEast. The ruling also dismissed claims by the state attorney general’s office to block access to certain properties in which New Jersey has a conservation interest.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted PennEast permission to build its pipeline in January 2018. Landowners made their cases against PennEast in court in April. Approximately one third of the pipeline route is located within Hunterdon and Mercer counties.

As reported by NJSpotlight’s Jon Hurdle, PennEast must show to the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection that its project will not violate federal water-quality standards, and that it complies with other state rules including those on flood hazards, storm water and endangered species.

The pipeline would originate in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, site of the Marcellus Shale deposit, said to be an abundant source of natural gas. The gas would be accessed through the process known as fracking, which critics say is harmful to the environment. PennEast asserts that the pipeline has the potential to provide low-cost energy to homes and businesses throughout the area.

In its media release, PennEast averred that it strives to build positive relationships with landowners, the community and governmental agencies. “With [the] ruling, PennEast can collect and supply scientific data as required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the NJDEP for PennEast’s permits to ensure a thorough and complete application,” said Tony Cox, chairman of the PennEast Board of Managers.

Members of the Hopewell Valley community have been organized in opposition to the proposal since 2014, when it was first proposed, forming a group called Hopewell Township Citizens Against the PennEast Pipeline, or HTCAPP. In 2016, more than 8,000 people signed a regional petition opposing the pipeline.

Speaking at the Hopewell Township Committee meeting Dec. 17, Patty Cronheim, the founder of HTCAPP, outreach coordinator for Rethink Energy New Jersey, and chair of the Hopewell Township Pipeline Task Force, characterized the judge’s ruling as a preliminary injunction.

“There will not be any transfer of title or final taking (of land) until there is a process where [landowners] go through what is just compensation. To that end, the judge has appointed commissioners for that,” she said. “Our attorneys will be trying to hold off that process because if there is no transfer of title then it will be easier to get these orders vacated once we do succeed in defeating PennEast … this decision from the judge in absolutely no way affects our ability to stop this pipeline.”

Cronheim estimated that the surveys could take PennEast and its surveyors a year to complete.