Posted by: Bill Tracy | February 23, 2014

Spring, It’s Here If You Look

Don’t worry, be happy
- Meher Baba
Snow shovels and ice skates, the accoutrements of winter will soon melt away like the cold snows of winter.

Snow shovels and ice skates, the accoutrements of winter will soon melt away like the cold snows of winter.

Unaccustomed as we have become to snow and cold, a deep weariness has settled in this winter season. The past few years have been mild. In Philadelphia now, it’s the third snowiest winter in recorded history. So many nights of single-digit temperatures have given birth to an unimagined new weather term – the “polar vortex.” Snow, slush, black ice, muffler-ripping winds, school closures, rock salt shortages, potholes — most folks seem weary of it all. Spring never looked so good; I went looking for it yesterday when our dungeon-master, Winter, took a rare day off. Afternoon temperatures neared 60, there was warm sunshine and even the southwest breeze had no chill. It was a fine day for a Thoreauvian walk about the neighborhood.

Daffodils peek out, showing the door to a worn out old man Winter.

Daffodils peek out, showing the door to a worn out old man Winter.

Spring is all around us now. You can see it if you know what to look for. I saw enough Robins yesterday to set a bird watcher aflutter. Asphalt and earth are now appearing where there have been only snowbanks for weeks. Around the corner, Cabana Water Ice is open for business. Newspapers are full of baseball spring training reports – full of the confidence and hope only a fresh season can bring. The Phillies play their first televised game next Wednesday, February 26. A few days later opens the Philadelphia Flower Show, although given their ticket prices they obviously don’t want any poor water ice eaters in the building – I’ll wait for the free daffodils to bloom down the street. We’re already a third of the way to the Summer Solstice (June 21 this year), the year’s longest day. At 5:30 this afternoon we still have light – two months ago it had already been dark for an hour at this point. And two weeks from today we begin our so-called “Daylight Savings Time,” and it will be light until 7 PM.

Cabana Water Ice is open -- Spring is here and the refreshments of a warm Summer eve are with us again.

Cabana Water Ice is open — Spring is here and the refreshments of a warm Summer eve are with us again.

Weather forecasters predict this winter will hang through at least next week – nighttime temperatures in the teens for midweek. I say that’s just our dungeon master, old man Winter, shaking the snow from his boots as he skulks out the back door. He’s not welcome anymore, and we’ve issued a warm invitation to Spring.

Time to put away the heavy coats, snow shovels and cabin fever. As the Mystic, Meher Baba, used to say, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Posted by: Bill Tracy | December 23, 2013

Texas Owns New Jersey

I’ve been spending the best years of my life as a public benefactor.

–Al Capone

There’s not much to like about Texas. I spent a couple of years living there while I was in the military. Austin has a few good restaurants, and I hear the town now is sort of an artistic Mecca for musicians. Outside of that, Texas seems to be a mean place where a nasty anti-intellectualism resides and a lot of bad things happen. What I’ve learned recently about the proposed gas pipeline through the “protected” New Jersey pinelands suggests a Texas corporation is at the root of the problem. No surprise; Texas meanness extends well beyond its borders.

The B.L. England Generating Station at Beesley's Point, NJ. Picture taken May 2007 just after it was acquired from Atlantic City Electric by Rockland Capital.

The B.L. England Generating Station at Beesley’s Point, NJ. Picture taken May 2007 just after it was acquired from Atlantic City Electric by Rockland Capital.

After seeing a couple of New Jersey Pinelands Commission meetings, talking to folks and reading news stories, the whole pipeline scheme looks to be largely for the benefit of this Texas Corporation. Rockland Capital Cape May Holdings, LLC is affiliated with (local muscle for?) Rockland Capital Energy Investments, LLC of Houston, Texas. “RC,” as they call themselves, bought the declining B.L. England Generating Station in 2007 for $12 million, round numbers. What they got was 368 acres of prime land on the mouth of the Great Egg Harbor River and an electrical generating plant rated at over 400 megawatts. Two of the generators are coal-fired; the other uses No. 6 fuel oil. Only one of them has a “scrubber” unit to clean the exhaust gasses. None of the units seem to meet latest air pollution emission standards to operate regularly. What has been said at Pinelands Commission meeting is the power plant operates only during periods of peak demand – summertime at the Jersey shore when the air conditioners are blowing gale force day and night. A lot of people go to the Jersey shore in summer. They say they love it – but not enough to tolerate the heat and humidity (all that water around, don’t you know!). So, there’s lots of air conditioning and electricity use.

Rockland Capital rep does a victory dance upon leaving a meeting of the New Jersey Pinelands  Commission in Pemberton, NJ.

Rockland Capital rep does a victory dance upon leaving a meeting of the New Jersey Pinelands
Commission in Pemberton, NJ.

Rockland Capital was not created to provide cool air to Jersey shore vacationers. They are an investment company. Profit, making money, that’s what they care about. Their stated strategy is this: “Rockland’s investment philosophy is value based and acquisitions are expected to yield competitive risk-adjusted returns. Primary acquisition targets are power generation and related assets with unique commercial, financial or physical characteristics that can benefit from an active management approach. Investments are considered on a selective basis and include: merchant generation and distressed assets.” They list a few other type investment “targets,” but those two appear to define the B.L. England acquisition. They characterize it as a merchant generation facility (wholesale, unregulated sale of electrical power), but it would seem hard to get much return on investment if you can only operate one 155-MW unit a few months of the year. That would seem to suggest it’s a distressed asset, a fixer-upper. On the plus side, if you could convert the facility to burn gas, it could operate at optimal output year-round. Also, given that the Oyster Creek nuclear generating station will close in a few years, the market would be more favorable for a gas-fired producer. It might put such a plant in a very profitable position. And profit is everything for a Texas company called RC.

Galloway Township Officer Jorgensen appears furious when Anne Carroll of Collingswood refuses to stop speaking after her three-minutes was up. The threat of arrest from armed officers does not comport with my idea of participatory democracy.

Galloway Township Officer Jorgensen appears furious when Anne Carroll of Collingswood refuses to stop speaking after her three-minutes was up. The threat of arrest from armed officers does not comport with my idea of participatory democracy.

Thanks (?) to fracking (hydraulic fracturing of deep geological formations to harvest gas) this country is now fuming over with hydrocarbon gas. If I remember right, about 40% of what we’re now “producing” is being exported to other countries. If only there was a way for that B.L. England plant to convert to gas and get it piped into their facility. There is no nearby gas supply they can hook into. So, South Jersey Gas to the rescue. To sell as much gas as an electrical power generating station will use, they’ll gladly build a pipeline right to their door. South Jersey Gas says: “Once online, the annual throughput of gas to the B. L. England facility will be about 20 million dekatherms, essentially equal to the amount of gas SJG currently provides to approximately 267,000 homes in a year.” The instant equivalent of a quarter-million new customers. I might pick up a shovel and start digging a pipeline myself for that kind of business. Trouble is, South Jersey Gas and RC have a little problem.

NJ pinelands in winter. Most folks don't associate this kind of beauty with New Jersey.

NJ pinelands in winter. Most folks don’t associate this kind of beauty with New Jersey.

Using the most convenient route for a pipeline, the environmentally protected New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve stands between the place where you get the gas and the B.L England plant where they want it to go. You’re not allowed to run a high-pressure, hydrocarbon gas pipeline through the pinelands. Over 30 years ago the federal government, New Jersey state government and even the United Nations said our pinelands are too special and need to be protected and preserved for all time. Laws were put in place to protect that land. South Jersey Gas and RC seem to think those government entities were just kidding. Either that or they believe they are more special than the pinelands themselves. Maybe both. So, instead of using a more expensive route for their pipeline, they decided to get around the laws. To do this, they’re using what appear to be bribes and corrupt politics.

Since the pipeline clearly violates the pinelands protections, South Jersey Gas didn’t bother to seek permission from the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, the governmental group charged with enforcing the preservation directives put into place over 30 years ago. That would have been rejected out of hand. Since most folks seem to think this Commission has been too tough in their enforcement over those years, it’s not likely they’re going to buy off. But hydrocarbon energy has always generated lots of dirty money and there are dirty politicians who like that dirty money. The right ones may be able to pressure the Commission to dance to the tune of RC from Texas, the investment company that needs the gas.

NJ Pinelands in winter.

NJ Pinelands in winter.

Step one for South Jersey Gas was to ask their pals at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, the regulating agency in the state, to use their muscle and directly ask the Pineland Commission to allow the pipeline. Government entities can sometimes get variances for works of public good, such as expanding an airport or accommodating needed highways. The notorious gangster, Al Capone, said, “I’ve been spending the best years of my life as a public benefactor.” South Jersey Gas and RC must see themselves in that same warped mirror.

Since the Board of Public Utilities rather than South Jersey Gas asked for special accommodations for the gas pipeline, as a project of necessary and great public good, the Pineland Commissions took it under consideration. The Commission staff, led by Executive Director, Nancy Wittenberg (capo appointed by NJ Governor Christopher Christie), “recommended” the Board accept and approve the pipeline. This offended right-thinking members of the citizenry, and a substantial public opposition has emerged. In the face of the opposition, South Jersey Gas and their Texas motivators, RC, have offered $8 million to help the yes votes go down easier. The money is designated to buy land adjacent to the pipeline route (as a buffer, I suppose) and to build a pinelands educational facility. Also, I understand the money is dependent on matching funds from government that may or may not ever materialize. One of the commissioners openly suggested this looked rather tawdry and made it appeared the Commission was being offered a bribe. (If it quacks like a duck….)

Standing room only at the Pinelands Commission meeting in Galloway Township, December 9, 2013.

Standing room only at the Pinelands Commission meeting in Galloway Township, December 9, 2013.

When some Commissioners started voicing public doubts about the whole deal, the Governor sent a message. He had his attorney general tell one of the Commissioners he had a conflict of interest, therefore he was not allowed to vote on the pipeline. This Commissioner is affiliated with an environmental group that may or may not have asked the Commission to schedule more time and meeting for public comment – that’s his “conflict of interest.” At the next public meeting, goons from the attorney general office showed up to make sure this Commissioner had nothing to say about the issue. The NJ Governor has his head in the fantasy clouds of running for U.S. president in 2016, and I’ll bet a sizable campaign contribution from a Texas corporation would be very helpful – just speculation, but hydrocarbon money is as dirty as it comes.

Logs, not pipelines in the New Jersey pinelands, please.

Logs, not pipelines in the New Jersey pinelands, please.

In answer to the current Governor’s message, four past New Jersey Governors have sent their own message. They are telling the Commission not to mess with the pinelands. Brendan T. Byrne (a State Forest in the pines is named for him), James Florio, Thomas H. Kean and Christine Todd Whitman sent a letter to the Commission saying, “The current proposal would compromise the integrity of the Pinelands plan and serve to encourage future development contrary to the vision the plan sets out for growth and conservation in the Pinelands.” This is what I and many environmental groups have been saying.

On Friday, January 10, 2014, we play the next round in this Texas tea drama. The Commissioners may vote that day to approve or reject the pipeline. If approved, environmental groups have promised a challenge in the courts. That could prove an interesting and possibly long, drawn-out affair; RC and their South Jersey Gas puppets won’t like that.

Blueberry fields in the NJ pinelands. The plant thrives in the unique highly acidic soil.

Blueberry fields in the NJ pinelands. The plant thrives in the unique highly acidic soil.

While a lot of my environmental friends will disagree, I don’t oppose a gas pipeline to this generating plant. Actually, it seems like a good use of existing infrastructure. We’re going to need generating capacity. (Wind, solar, etc. are better, but they are not the near-term solution.) If the B.L. England plant can be converted to gas, that does seem to be a reasonable near-term solution. However, I believe their pipeline through the piney woods carries too much potential for all sorts of future ills.

Let’s tell Texas to spend the money and build this damn pipeline someplace where we don’t compromise our pinelands and our cherished values. Either that or we sic the Jersey Devil on them!

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