A proposed natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands moved an important step closer to approval with the issuance Friday by the Pinelands Commission staff of a "Certificate of Filing" to South Jersey Gas.

The certificate "is necessary to allow any state, county, or municipal agency to review and act on the proposed development application," Charles Horner, director of regulatory programs for the commission, said in a letter Friday to South Jersey Gas.

"We will follow the process laid out in the certificate as we move toward completion of the project," Robert Fatzinger, senior vice president of engineering services and system integrity for South Jersey Gas, said in a statement.

The action comes as the utility also seeks a zoning order from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) that would supersede local zoning ordinances and allow construction of the 22-mile pipeline, which has been opposed by environmentalists and conservationists.

A BPU commissioner will hold an evidentiary hearing on the utility's petition, then present the findings to the full board, BPU spokesman Greg Reinert said Friday.

If the BPU approves and the commission staff determines that the project remains consistent with the guidelines of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, the work can proceed.

Construction permits would still have to be obtained from the local municipalities but no further public hearings or commission or board action would be required, officials said.

In late July, the BPU endorsed changes to the planned pipeline, which would run through Upper Township in Cape May County, Maurice River Township in Cumberland County, and Estell Manor in Atlantic County.

The project would convert the B.L. England Generating Station at Beesleys Point in Upper Township from the use of coal to natural gas.

Amendments approved with the plan prohibit new customers from being connected to any portion of the pipeline in the Pinelands forest area, and allow an interconnection and regulator station to be relocated outside the preserve.

"A Certificate of Filing is not an approval," said Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the Pinelands Commission, in an interview Friday. "It's a significant step in the process.

"We are following our process," she said. "This one is being handled strictly by the rules."

Wittenberg announced news of the certificate at a public meeting of the commission on Friday, and was quickly criticized by Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

"This is the Pearl Harbor of the Pinelands," Tittel said in a statement. "What Nancy Wittenberg did was a sneak attack on the Pinelands for South Jersey Gas.

"In an outrageous abuse of power, she has taken away the rights of the public and the rights of the Commissioners from having a voice on this destructive pipeline," he said.

More criticism came from Lena Smith, a New Jersey organizer for Food & Water Watch, a Philadelphia-based group that champions healthy food and clean water.

"This is a new low for New Jersey's environment and the state leaders tasked with protecting it," she said in a statement after the announcement.

Earlier opposition to the pipeline also has come from four former governors: Brendan T. Byrne, Thomas H. Kean, Christie Whitman, and James J. Florio.

South Jersey Gas submitted an application for a Certificate of Filing in May to the commission, but it was determined by staff to be incomplete, officials said. Horner, the commission's director of regulatory programs, requested more detailed information, such as the exact location of the proposed gas main in certain areas.

"The pipeline would create irreversible harm to wetlands, streams, damaging important open spaces, and threaten our water supply. It will threaten one of the largest sources of fresh drinking water on the east coast," Tittel said in a statement.

The 24-inch pipeline would run along the shoulder of Route 49 from Maurice Township through about 10 miles of forest area, and then along Route 50 to Tuckahoe Road and an Atlantic City Electric right-of-way to the B.L. England plant.