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Opponents look to escape 'legal limbo' after FERC order in PennEast case

After the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission put off a decision on rehearing requests involving its approval of the 1.1-Bcf/d PennEast natural gas pipeline, an environmental group is counting on other agencies to block the project.

On Feb. 22, FERC issued a tolling order for PennEast Pipeline Co. LLC's project, indefinitely extending the deadline beyond the 30 days required by law for the commission to decide whether to grant a rehearing of its decision to approve the project.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network said the order placed challenges to the project in "legal limbo."

"This is an incredible abuse of power and miscarriage of justice," Delaware Riverkeeper leader Maya van Rossum said. Delaware Riverkeeper and other pipeline opponents have criticized FERC's use of tolling orders because they prevent opponents from turning to federal appeals courts until FERC issues a final decision on the rehearing request.

FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said tolling orders "allow the commission as much time as needed" to review such requests.

Rossum said she expects FERC will refrain from issuing a final decision until at least until February 2019 and allow the developer to proceed with construction activities.

Rossum said she hopes that other agencies, such as the Delaware River Basin Commission and New Jersey regulators, will limit construction activities until FERC produces a more thorough environmental review of the project.

New Jersey has challenged the project. The state Department of Environmental Protection denied an application for a Clean Water Act Section 401 permit over missing survey data, and the agency is another party that has asked FERC for a rehearing of the certificate order.

PennEast is working with the New Jersey agency and other regulators. "In addition to continuing to work with various agencies, PennEast remains focused on working with landowners to reach fair easement agreements that compensate them for temporary and permanent impacts," PennEast spokeswoman Patricia Kornick said Feb. 23.

FERC approved the project in a Jan. 19 order. Its staff issued a favorable final environmental review in April 2017. With a 120-mile pipeline and compressor station, the project would deliver Marcellus Shale gas to East Coast markets. PennEast is a joint venture backed by Enbridge Inc., Southern Co. Inc, New Jersey Resources Corp., South Jersey Industries Inc. and UGI Corp. (FERC docket CP15-558)