Celebrating Washington’s Crossing and Defending the PennEast Pipeline

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Calling all history buffs with an interest in the American founding period.

If you are fortunate enough to visit Washington Crossing Park during the Christmas season, you are sure to encounter historical re-enactors dressed in colonial garb.

Some will wear the uniform of the “Continental Army” that fought to free the thirteen American colonies from British rule, while others might be dressed as civilians from the 18th Century.

Not everyone was a “patriot” supporting the American Revolution. In fact, there were a number of British loyalists in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who opposed the War of Independence. Others fell somewhere in between. In many respects, the politics of the region were just as divided back then as they are today.

There are actually two different parks that commemorate George Washington’s audacious crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776. There’s one on the Pennsylvania side in Bucks County and another on the New Jersey side in Mercer County.  We all know the story in one form or another. “Washington’s Crossing,” as it came to be known, reignited the revolution at a time when it appeared to be dead and dormant.  The Christmas crossing of the Delaware marked the beginning of the Ten Crucial Days, which continued with the two Battles of Trenton and ended with the Battle of Princeton. These events are celebrated and recognized in the form of annual re-enactment ceremonies during “Patriots Week.”

Prior to the Christmas Day re-enactment of the crossing, there’s a little more action on the Pennsylvania side, where large, wooden, flat-bottomed “Durham Boats” are tied up along the bank. This is where Washington and his Continental Army gathered under severe weather conditions to launch their surprise attack on the Hessians in Trenton. But those visitors who congregate on the New Jersey side to witness the crossing have one important advantage.  As the re-enactors make their way over in the Durham boats, there is no denying how arduous and treacherous the actual crossing must have been. Even in temperate weather conditions, getting those boats across the river is no small feat.

There were a number of reasons to call off the attack on Trenton, based on what could go wrong. As it happens, it did not go off as planned. Washington’s main assault force crossed about nine miles north of Trenton. But large chunks of ice prevented General John Cadwalader and General James Ewing from crossing at points further south.

Since these other crossings had failed, Washington was reduced to a much smaller force of just 2400 soldiers. He also had to contend with snow and sleet that slowed the march to Trenton. Under these conditions, the thinking must have been “defeat is possible and perhaps even likely.” So why didn’t Washington and his continentals halt the crossing based on what might possibly go wrong? The answer is that it’s just not the American way. The idea that any great enterprise should be halted, delayed or somehow blocked because of unsubstantiated speculation about its prospects for success is antithetical to thinking of the founding period.

Unfortunately, this thinking has found expression among contemporary Americans who identify themselves with the modern environmental movement. The areas in and around Washington Crossing Park in Mercer County are littered with signs that read “Stop the PennEast Pipeline.” Look closely at the signs and you will see the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (the “Riverkeeper”) is listed as the organization behind the anti-pipeline campaign. The Riverkeeper is a nonprofit group based in Bristol, PA, that has received $914,000 in grant money from the William Penn Foundation, a private charity headquartered in Philadelphia. The proposed PennEast Pipeline would transport natural gas to customers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  The 118-mile, 36-inch pipeline would originate in Luzerne County, in northeastern Pennsylvania, cut across the Delaware River and connect with another pipeline in Mercer County. Supporters point to economic impact studies that show the PennEast Pipeline could save natural gas and electricity consumers hundreds of millions of dollars in energy costs. So what’s the problem? The Riverkeeper and other opponents claim the pipeline would lead to “environmental devastation.” But, how so? Where is the evidence? Go search on the opposition web sites and it’s pretty clear the environmentalists are really targeting natural gas development out of the Marcellus Shale, which cuts across parts of Pennsylvania. Opposition to PennEast is really a proxy for a larger debate about energy policy. The use of innovative drilling techniques to tap into natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale, and other shale deposits, has had a transformative impact on America’s energy posture with significant geopolitical ramifications.

Opponents of natural gas development are falling back on a concept known as the “precautionary principle,” which is typically invoked by environmentalists as a way to delay, if not scuttle, economic initiatives on the basis of unproven and often unfounded allegations. Here is how the Wingspread Declaration  (named for the conference center where environmental activists gathered in 1998) defines the precautionary principle:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established.”

If the precautionary principle had been in effect in 1776, we’d all be carrying British passports today. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is set to make a decision on authorizing the pipeline in March 2017. Let’s hope.

 

Kevin J. Mooney, Investigative Reporter for Political Storm in Washington D.C.