It may seem like one of the smaller, less consequential clashes as environmental fights go, but the battle taking shape over a pipeline that would take natural gas from eastern Pennsylvania to the Trenton, N.J., area is fast becoming a proxy war for larger forces that could threaten the shale revolution on the East Coast and beyond.

The proposed PennEast pipeline would move natural gas from Dallas, Pa., in the Poconos, to Hopewell Township in Mercer County, N.J. Construction on the 36-inch-wide, 114-mile pipeline would begin in spring 2017 if the project can gain approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Five other pipelines now carry gas over roughly the same route—indeed, the proposed path for the PennEast project was altered so 50 percent of the pipeline could be co-located with existing rights of way, according to project officials.

But those other lines are operating at full capacity because of the dramatic growth of energy exploration in the Marcellus Shale region, which has made addition of another line necessary, project officials say.

Studies show the pipeline would produce economic benefits. According to a new study from Concentric Energy Advisors, New Jersey ratepayers would have saved $900 million last winter if the pipeline had been in place.

The pipeline, if built, also would “help reduce … price volatility to the benefit of New Jersey’s nearly 3 million natural gas consumers,” and will transport enough natural gas between Pennsylvania and New Jersey to heat the equivalent of 4.7 million homes, the study says.

Indeed, during the winter of 2013-2014, natural gas prices in New Jersey varied from $100 per dekatherm to $3 per dekatherm in the area PennEast will extend into, according to a release from UGI, one of the companies involved in the project.

Moreover, the PennEast partnership, which consists of UGI, AGL Resources, NJR Pipeline Company — a subsidiary of New Jersey Resources — and South Jersey Industries, estimates total economic impact in both states during the design and construction of $1.62 billion, which would support more than 12,160 new jobs with $740 million in wages.

‘Stop the Pipeline!’

But the Delaware Riverkeeper network, a nonprofit group based in Bristol, Pa., is not sold on the pipeline.

The group has organized meetings, planted signs throughout Mercer County and even gone into schools in New Jersey to explain its opposition to the project. Its leaders claim farmers have told them production on farmland goes down 30 percent when pipelines are installed underneath the land. It says pollution and other threats to public safety far outweigh the benefits.

In fact, it says, the pipeline not only would not deliver on the jobs, salaries, price decreases and other economic benefits promoted by project developers, it would constitute a net economic drain on the area.

“When you look at their claims, their analysis is very limited and myopic,” said Maya K. van Rossum, president of the Delaware Riverkeeper organization. “They do not talk about the job losses associated with the project and the implication for property values and impact on eco-tourism. They also don’t tell you that there is no need for the natural gas in New Jersey and that the real purpose of the project is to export the gas.”

But supporters say the Riverkeepers’ issue is not truly with the PennEast project itself but with the idea of energy from the Marcellus Shale making it to market. They point to the signs, ubiquitous in Mercer County, which read, “Protect the Environment! Stop the Pipeline!”; “STOP the Fracking Pipelines” and “STOP the Pipeline: Save the Sourlands.”

The Marcellus Shale is a deep repository of natural gas that runs through West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, that the energy industry has aggressively sought to drill. (Photo: Brett Carlsen/Reuters/Newscom)

The Marcellus Shale is a deep repository of natural gas that runs through West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, that the energy industry has aggressively sought to drill. (Photo: Brett Carlsen/Reuters/Newscom)

They bring up the public comments Riverkeeper delivered to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in which, they say, the organization showed its true colors.

“The impacts of the project cannot be understood apart from the totality of the past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions associated with Marcellus Shale development and the development of other shales such as the Utica shale,” the Riverkeeper argued in its letter to the regulatory body. “The PennEast project threatens to disturb pristine open space, landscapes of contiguous forest, threatened and endangered species habitat, and breathtaking vistas in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”

‘Enormously Beneficial’

Tom Shepstone, who operates the Natural Gas Now blog, claims the Riverkeeper’s real purpose is to provide a way for the William Penn Foundation, whose tax status restricts its ability to participate in such political debates, to fund efforts of others who can.

The William Penn Foundation is a Philadelphia-based grant-making foundation with a focus to “ensure a sustainable environment,” among other things.

“They [the William Penn Foundation] are not really out to protect the Delaware River,” Shepstone said, noting the group’s lawsuit about an environmental dispute in western Pennsylvania, which is two watersheds and 200 miles away from the Delaware River. “They are out to do the bidding of the William Penn Foundation. The pipeline really has nothing do with fracking. The Delaware Riverkeeper is trying to meld the two issues together to create a constituency opposed to the pipeline. But this is really about transporting natural gas to New Jersey, which would be enormously beneficial.”

Jim Willis, the editor and publisher of Marcellus Drilling News, sees “an irrational hatred of fossil fuels” behind the opposition to the project.

“They are not making rational arguments. Any kind of fossil fuel for them is something that must be resisted and beaten back. With this kind of mentality, we’ll never have any economic progress. We don’t live in a world without risks. Why hold the pipeline to an artificial standard that is not applied elsewhere and can never be met?”

‘We Can Do Both’

At least two other pipeline projects are proposed for the region, but although all have encountered some opposition, the PennEast project clearly has received the most.

Why? Possibly because the farther away from energy production you get, the easier it is to stir fear that a pipeline may cause damage to the water supply, says Nicole Jacobs, a spokesperson for Energy In Depth — a campaign of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

“There is no production in that part of New Jersey or Pennsylvania,”Jacobs said. “Where I live, the biggest concerns about fracking are people saying, ‘One of your trucks knocked over my mailbox. When will you fix my mailbox?’ But the farther away from production you get, the more concern you see with issues such as the water [supply].”

Patrick Kornick, a spokesman for PennEast, says the real issue is whether the pipeline can be built safely and deliver benefits to people who rely on natural gas in New Jersey.

“We are very fortunate in the United States in that we have reached the point with technological advancements that we do not have to choose between protecting the environment and constructing a natural gas pipeline, because we can do both,” he said.

“The pipelines of today are not the pipelines of 10 years ago; they are not even the pipelines of yesterday. We can safely construct a natural gas pipeline that will provide heat in winter and other options for homes, businesses and factories. Environmental protection and economic progress can exist harmoniously. We can do both.”