The Tennessee Gas Pipeline East 300 through NJ's Highlands is Phil Murphy's failure

For more than three years, residents, activists and environmental advocacy organizations have called on Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to stop a dangerous fossil fuel expansion project. And when a key court decision over the summer gave the Murphy administration an opportunity to slam the brakes, we thought we had won a huge victory. Unfortunately, the DEP allowed the project to move forward, even though it no longer had a key permit — putting clean water and our climate goals at risk.

The project in question is called East 300. Tennessee Gas Pipeline, or TGP, a subsidiary of the multibillion-dollar fossil fuel company Kinder Morgan, wanted approval for a major expansion of a compressor station in Wantage, as well as a massive new compressor station in West Milford within the Highlands Preservation Area. That station would be less than a quarter-mile from the Monksville Reservoir, a major source of clean drinking water.

Compressor stations are loud, polluting and accident-prone facilities that pressurize fracked gas to push it through a pipeline. TGP wants to ship higher volumes of gas through an aging pipeline system from Pennsylvania across New Jersey, and then on to Westchester County, New York — even though New York has banned new gas hookups in homes and businesses, and the state’s climate law requires major reductions in fossil fuels.

Murphy administration walks away from environmental victory

A former quarry in West Milford that has become a mulch lot has been eyed by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company as the new home of a compressor station designed to boost capacity in New York.
A former quarry in West Milford that has become a mulch lot has been eyed by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company as the new home of a compressor station designed to boost capacity in New York.

So when the DEP rubber-stamped TGP’s request to be exempted from the Highlands Act — a law that exists to protect our state’s largest source of clean drinking water — we took the agency to court, where we argued that TGP’s project should not have been granted this exemption. When the appellate court ruled in our favor back in August, the judges ordered that the matter be handed back to the DEP for further evaluation.

This was a major victory for environmentalists who want to protect the Highlands and a win for all who seek a moratorium on all new fossil fuel expansion projects. This should have prompted the DEP to issue a stop-work order to TGP — but on Oct. 31, TGP was given permission to put the project into operation the following day, and fire up its polluting compressor facilities. This unfortunate decision was consistent with the Murphy administration’s approach to the entire project.

The administration’s failure to stop East 300 stands in stark contrast to the grassroots movement to stop it. When TGP first applied for permits in June of 2020, we started organizing people across our state to speak to affected residents, lobby their town councils to pass resolutions, attend rallies and public hearings, and even participate in a civil disobedience action that led to eight arrests.

More opinion: The Tennessee Gas Pipeline expansion is still a bad idea. Here's why

Earlier this fall: Natural gas pipeline project in northern Highlands in limbo after judges' ruling

Why didn't Murphy answer activists?

When construction restarted, local activists continued to press the issue.

We made multiple calls to the DEP enforcement hotline, called in to “Ask Governor Murphy” media events, and spoke directly with DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette to ask why TGP had not been issued a stop-work order. The only thing the DEP communicated with us was that it had limited TGP to only minor construction. But footage of the facility taken from a licensed drone operator showed that TGP did major construction during this period.

When asked by regulators to report its activities, the company mischaracterized the amount and kinds of unpermitted work that took place.

There’s no other way to put it: At every step of the way, the Murphy administration has failed.

A governor who likes to portray himself as a climate champion did nothing to stop a major fossil fuel expansion that threatens his own climate goals and a major source of clean drinking water for our state.

Throughout this process, the DEP acted like an agency that was more concerned with protecting the business interests of billion-dollar fossil fuel corporations than upholding laws that protect our state's most vital natural resources.

As the grassroots movement to stop fossil fuel pollution continues to grow, the Murphy administration needs to decide which side it is on.

Sam DiFalco is an organizer with the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. 

This article originally appeared on Tennessee Gas Pipeline East 300 is Phil Murphy's legacy