WASHINGTON (CN) - Regulators were too quick to approve a pipeline expansion in northern New Jersey, the D.C. Circuit ruled, finding that they did not take into account three other related projects.
Known as the Northeast Project, the work at issue was one of four jobs representing a complete upgrade of 200 continuous miles of Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.'s "300 Line," which runs from Pennsylvania to Mahwah, N.J.
The upgrade was completed last year and is currently online.
After the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the project in 2012, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the New Jersey Highlands Coalition and the New Jersey Sierra Club complained that the FERC did not consider the project in conjunction with three other connected, closely related, and interdependent Tennessee Gas pipeline projects.
The petitioners also raised concerns with habitat fragmentation, hydrology changes to wetlands and groundwater, and "edge effects" of deforestation. They said the Northeast Project alone cleared 265 acres of forest and affected 50 acres of wetlands, while the four projects together permanently deforested 628 acres.
FERC countered that, because each project resulted in a measurable increase in the pipeline's overall capacity, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) did not require an analysis of the Northeast Project in conjunction with the other projects.
Finding otherwise last week, the D.C. Circuit said that the commission "impermissibly segmented the environmental review in violation of NEPA."
Noting that "Northeast Project was the third of the four pipeline construction projects completed in quick succession on the Eastern Leg of the 300 Line," the three-judge appellate panel said "it was clear" when FERC issued the certificate "that the entire Eastern Leg was included in a complete overhaul and upgrade."
"During the course of FERC's review of the Northeast Project application, the other three upgrade projects were either under construction (as with the 300 Line Project) or were also pending before FERC for environmental review and approval," Senior Judge Harry Edwards wrote for the court. "The end result is a single pipeline running from the beginning to the end of the Eastern Leg."
Because of this, "the Northeast Project is, thus, indisputably related and significantly 'connected' to the other three pipeline upgrade projects," the 29-page ruling states.
"On the record before us, we hold that in conducting its environmental review of the Northeast Project without considering the other connected, closely related, and interdependent projects on the Eastern Leg, FERC impermissibly segmented the environmental review in violation of NEPA," Edwards added.
The environmental analysis by the commission "is deficient in its failure to include any meaningful analysis of the cumulative impacts of the upgrade projects," the ruling continues.
Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, called the ruling a "major victory." "While this decision will have long lasting impact, it will not undo the permanent damage the project has inflicted on the Highlands," Somers said in a statement.
Tennessee Gas' parent company, Kinder Morgan, meanwhile said that the ruling will not disrupt the transportation of gas. "Whether the completed expansion projects are considered individually, as FERC did, or cumulatively, we do not expect any change in the ultimate conclusion that there was no significant environmental impact resulting from the projects," the company said in a statement.