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Energy infrastructure: the new sprawl
12/15/2016 Volume XLIX, No. 49

Since the 1980s, New Jersey lost tens of thousands of acres to sprawl development when condos, McMansions, office buildings and strip malls spread across the landscape without coordinated planning.

But according to a new study, “energy sprawl” - pipelines, compressor stations, transmission lines and other energy infrastructure - is now the greatest threat to farmland and natural areas across the United States.

Titled “Energy Sprawl Is the Largest Driver of Land Use Change in United States,” the study was published in the online academic journal PLOS ONE. 

The study’s authors calculated the impact of energy sprawl since 2007, the beginning of the fracking and shale oil boom in the United States.

Between 2007 and 2011, the U.S. increased its domestic energy production by 15 percent. “Over 82,000 square kilometers (or 31,660 square miles) were directly impacted by new energy infrastructure, an area the size of Maine,” wrote researchers Anne Trainor, Robert McDonald and Joseph Fargione of The Nature Conservancy.

That’s only the beginning. The authors predicted that energy production in the United States for domestic use and export will rise another 27 percent by 2040.  “When spacing requirements are included, over 800,000 square kilometers (308,881 square miles) of additional land area will be affected by energy development, an area greater than the size of Texas,” they wrote.

The pace of energy development, the authors noted, is more than double the historic rate of urban and residential development, which for decades was the greatest driver of land conversion in the United States.

Here in New Jersey, the study’s conclusions are being borne out. Energy sprawl has emerged as perhaps the greatest threat to the Garden State’s farmland, forests and open spaces due to numerous pipeline and energy infrastructure proposals, including:

  • PennEast gas pipeline in Hunterdon and Mercer counties
  • Southern Reliability Link gas pipeline in Burlington and Ocean counties
  • Garden State Expansion project compressor station in Chesterfield, Burlington County
  • South Jersey Gas pipeline in Cumberland and Cape May counties
  • Northeast Supply Enhancement Project in Middlesex and Somerset counties
  • Pilgrim oil pipeline in Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Morris and Union counties

Most of these projects target areas rich in preserved open space. The PennEast pipeline, for example, would cut through over 4,300 acres of preserved open space and farmland near the Delaware River, and the Southern Reliability Link and South Jersey Gas pipelines would cut swaths through the Pinelands National Reserve.

Linear pipeline projects fragment forests, segment preserved farms and threaten waterways, all while furthering our dependence on fossil fuels.  They undermine the integrity of land preservation programs and regional planning laws like the Pinelands Protection Act by targeting conservation lands, and lands permanently preserved for future generations.

Unfortunately, these energy infrastructure projects are proposed without comprehensive planning and, worse yet, without demonstrated public need. And there’s no predicting where the next projects will pop up, putting every part of New Jersey at risk.

New Jersey deserves comprehensive energy planning.  Cumulative environmental impacts must be considered, as well as public need. Full-blown alternatives analyses must be conducted.

It’s also important to factor in the need for a rapid transition to locally-produced renewable energy like wind and solar.  As the study authors noted, renewable energy production can be sustained indefinitely on the same land base, while extractive energy requires continual drilling and mining in new areas.

In a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll, 71 percent of New Jersey voters surveyed say it’s more important for the state to invest in clean energy sources like wind and solar than in fossil fuels through the construction of additional pipelines.

Sixty-three percent of those polled said they are “somewhat” or “very” concerned about the impact of pipelines in New Jersey. When asked about specific pipeline-related concerns, 88 percent said they’re concerned about eminent domain being used to take land, 82 percent are concerned about impacts to natural areas, 81 percent are concerned about risks to air and water quality, 81 percent are concerned about the use of open space for pipelines and 79 percent said they’re concerned about safety risks.

To learn more about the impacts of energy infrastructure on New Jersey, the PublicMind poll and how to conserve energy, visit the ReThink Energy NJ website at www.rethinkenergynj.org.

To read the energy sprawl study, go to http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0162269.

And for more information on preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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