With multiple proposals for oil and natural gas pipelines into and through New Jersey - and a slew of organizations fighting those proposals - one state environmental group is hoping a soft-spoken activist can organize the pipeline opposition.
Thomas A. Gilbert, 45, a longtime activist known for his land preservation work, will begin working June 15 as a campaign director at New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
Currently, pipeline proposals are evaluated case-by-case by a range of governmental agencies: the PennEast pipeline carrying natural gas into New Jersey from Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale fracking region, the Diamond East pipeline on a similar track, the Pilgrim Oil pipeline to carry Bakken shale oil, and the New Jersey Natural Gas and South Jersey Gas pipelines through the Pine Barrens.
Similarly, opposition tends to be localized.
"One of the things that we hope to do is find ways to support all of those efforts and help those citizens on the ground who are trying to protect their communities, and find some ways to knit some of their efforts together in a broader effort, as well," Gilbert said last week.
As a conservationist, Gilbert has focused on land preservation, as has the conservation foundation, which he has worked with but never been employed by. As pipeline proposals popped up, Gilbert and activists at the foundation found themselves drawn into a new debate: energy.
"The more we found out about it, the more we realized how big of an issue it is, not just for preserved lands, but for water quality, wildlife health and habitat, community health," said Michele S. Byers, executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
Gilbert will fill the newly created post of campaign director for climate, energy, and natural resources.
Heading the campaign will be a familiar role for the longtime activist who grew up in Bucks County and vacationed in New Jersey.
After receiving his bachelor's degree in history and economics in 1992 from the University of Vermont - "classic liberal arts major, not really sure what I wanted to do" - Gilbert found a job with a group focused on organizing grassroots environmental advocacy.
That experience, coupled with a burgeoning love of the outdoors and fueled by concerns about land development in his home region around Philadelphia, led Gilbert to return to Vermont for a master's degree in natural resource management and planning, which he received in 1999.
His first high-profile success came as executive director of the Highlands Coalition, an effort that resulted in new federal and state laws to fund preservation efforts in northwestern New Jersey and Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut.
"That took a tremendous amount of work," said State Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), a member of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee at the time and now committee chairman.
Smith recently worked with Gilbert when, as chair of the Keep It Green coalition, Gilbert led the push for a ballot question on open space funding that voters passed in November.
Gilbert will step down from his current position with the Keep It Green coalition and from his current job with the Trust for Public Land, where he has spent more than seven years.
Gilbert's approach to lawmakers involves bringing research to make a case and spending time checking in even when not pitching specific legislation. That gives him credibility when he does call on lawmakers to take action, Smith said.
"He is not an in-your-face kind of person," said Assemblyman John F. McKeon (D., Morris), vice chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee. "Legislators have tons of different stakeholders looking for their time, and he'd never be jumping up and down to get the message across but has a good low-key approach to him that allowed people to listen."
To some fellow environmental activists, Gilbert's approach is patient and ego-free, they said, seeking to focus on broad goals and to avoid minor disagreements.
But everyone is not always on the same page on environmental issues. Jeff Tittel, head of New Jersey Sierra Club, said he and Gilbert have had different philosophical approaches.
The Sierra Club initially was a founding member of the Keep It Green coalition but later backed out over a funding disagreement, Tittel said.
Tittel said he hoped Gilbert and others would see how pipeline issues are tied to other environmental concerns, such as alternative energy sources and clean water sources, and how one way to stop pipelines is by curbing fracking and promoting alternative energy.
Carleton Montgomery, executive director of Pinelands Preservation Alliance, who has worked with Gilbert for more than 12 years, said Gilbert was a good fit to head a pipeline opposition campaign.
"He's really respectful of everybody; he doesn't lose his temper when one of us becomes incredibly irritating, which we tend to do from time to time," Montgomery said.
"He's very good at pulling people back, again and again, to the common, fundamental objective, and not allowing the group dynamics to become destructive of that goal."
Gilbert said he would consider himself successful when there is a more general approach to evaluating pipeline proposals and more people are discussing and understanding the issues at play.
To get there, he'll be honing his pitch.
"Environmentalists often get accused - and in a lot of cases, probably rightly so - of being too wonky and talking about things that people don't understand or can't relate to," Gilbert said.
"It's important for our movement to really talk about these issues in a way that the average person, family, mom, dad, can relate to. And I'm a fairly regular guy. I've got the same concerns: family and kids, bills to pay, and I worry about whether the water my kids are drinking is clean, and all the same things that other people worry about."