New Jersey wants to limit the number of natural gas wells drilled in the Delaware River Basin when a moratorium is lifted on hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that involves injecting huge volumes of water to extract the fuel from shale.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection urged the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to limit the number of production wells to no more than 300 once it adopts regulations governing the drilling for natural gas in Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and New York.
The tough stance was welcomed by critics of the practice, dubbed "fracking," because they fear widespread drilling might end up polluting the drinking water of 15 million people who rely on the Delaware River, including 3 million in New Jersey. But they questioned why the state did not demand that its 300-well limit be included in regulations being adopted by the commission.
DEP Commissioner Bob Martin sent his formal comments to the interstate agency Friday, the day after the public comment period on DRBC regulations governing fracking closed. The timing frustrated environmentalists who want to retain the moratorium until more exhaustive studies assessing the impact of the technology are completed.
"If they vote to adopt the rules as proposed, these things will never happen," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "They need to repropose the rules with the recommended protections. Otherwise it is just a publicity stunt."
"Any drilling in the Delaware River watershed is too much drilling," said David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. Still, he said the call for limits on drilling was "moving in the right direction."
Maya von Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, agreed. "The push for more science and more analysis is positive," she said, but she questioned if the DRBC should move ahead with its regulations before lifting the moratorium. "We can get the science done without damaging our river and water quality."
Martin’s comments also came a day before an investigation by congressional Democrats found oil and gas companies had injected hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals into wells in more than 13 states over a four-year period.
In its proposal, New Jersey wants the DRBC to stage the approval of well sites, or pads. It should allow no more than 30 production well pads, not to exceed 300 production wells in total, in the two years immediately following adoption of its proposed regulations. The DRBC then should conduct an extensive study to assess the impact of the initial wells and the effectiveness of its regulations before any further drilling could occur.
The DRBC projects that between 15,000 and 18,000 natural gas wells will be drilled within the basin after the proposal expires.
New Jersey also would require proper management and disposal of the waste material derived from fracking, and conclusive evidence that diverting water from the basin does not adversely affect other water users and the environment. Critics of fracking have argued that wastewater treatment facilities in the region cannot adequately handle byproducts generated by the practice.
"Without these conditions in place, natural gas development activities in the Delaware River Basin will be unacceptable," Martin wrote.
Asked why Martin had not insisted on incorporating the New Jersey changes into the proposed rules, Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said the commissioner was seeking a "reasoned approach" to overseeing natural gas development. "It’s a sound and reasonable way to proceed," he said.
Questioned what would happen if the DRBC ignores New Jersey’s proposed changes, Hajna replied, "We certainly hope that would not be the case."
The five-member commission consists of representatives from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and the federal government, which could wind up having a deeply divided commission adopt the rules. Because of the economic boom caused by the discovery of deep deposits of natural gas, Pennsylvania favors lifting the moratorium, as does the federal government, said Pringle.
New Jersey could still block the rules if it is joined by New York and Delaware in not lifting the moratorium.