Pinelands Commissioners’ Energy Holdings Spark Ethics Query
Expedited Conflict Review Sought before Hurried Pipeline Approval Vote This Week
Trenton — As it prepares for a vote on a controversial high-pressure gas pipeline cutting through the heart of its namesake preserve, two members of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission have extensive oil and gas investments which raise potential conflict issues, according to a recusal request filed today with the state Ethics Commission by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In contrast to these direct and substantial industry holdings, a prominent public interest lawyer was ordered to recuse himself from this vote due to serving on the board of a law clinic which wrote and later withdrew a letter inquiring about the improperly hasty public notice for the Commission’s pipeline review.
The financial disclosure forms for 2013 filed by Pinelands Commission members William J. Brown and D’Arcy Rohan Green reveal investments in various energy industry corporations, including Exxon-Mobil, El Paso Corporation (a gas pipeline conglomerate), Piedmont Natural Gas, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, SandRidge Energy, Western Refining, NRG Energy, Southern Co., Occidental Petroleum and Halliburton. The PEER complaint notes that these holdings “have the potential to create a conflict of interest with respect to their regulatory role in the South Jersey Gas Co. pipeline matter now pending before the Pinelands Commission.” The complaint cites state prohibitions against state officers having either “indirect” financial interests or creating “an impression or suspicion” that a conflict of interest may exist.
“These energy investments should force the recusal of these two Commission members out of concern they will vote their pocketbooks rather than the Pinelands,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting that Commissioner Ed Lloyd was ordered to recuse himself despite having no financial stake or even involvement in a since withdrawn letter from the Eastern Environmental Law Center, on whose board he sits. “If Ed Lloyd is forced to stand aside, these two should join him in the hallway.”
The controversy surrounding the proposed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for approving a pipeline bringing shale gas to repower the B.L. England Electric Generation Plant has been compounded by –
- Truncated public review process, covering just 19 days over the busy holiday period;
- Closed door meetings between the pipeline sponsor, South Jersey Gas Co., and Pineland Commission representatives to pre-negotiate an MOA, an instrument of questionable legality; and
- An $8 million payment to the Commission to compensate for the damage to the Pinelands, which the Commission is chartered to protect.
“By all appearances, the fix has been in on this project since day one,” Wolfe added, noting that the pipeline project has been strongly pushed by the Christie administration despite the opposition of four prior New Jersey governors of both parties. “Besides the integrity of the Pinelands, the integrity of the Pinelands Commission is at stake in this Friday’s vote, which is a big reason why there should be no shadow of potential conflict.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability