The agency overseeing the drinking water supplies for 15 million people in the region, including three million in New Jersey, needs to extend a temporary moratorium governing natural gas drilling to a permanent ban, according to environmentalists and U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th).
With a new executive director coming on board at the Delaware River Basin Commission this week, it is time to ratchet down on drilling efforts, which involve the injection of huge amounts of water into shale deposits to recover natural gas, the groups said.
The practice, known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,’’ has emerged as one of the top environmental issues in the region at the same time that industry is extracting new natural gas from Pennsylvania and neighboring states, which has driven down energy bills for customers in New Jersey.
Critics say the practice imperils drinking water supplies from the Delaware River.
“What most people take for granted is that when destructive practices are taking place, the government is on top it,’’ Holt said in a teleconference call with reporters. “Not so. There really has not been a good analysis of this.’’
Holt argued that the amount of methane, a pollutant emitted into the atmosphere in fracking operations, may be more than offsetting the advantages natural gas offers over other fossil fuels, such as coal, in producing electricity with less carbon dioxide emissions, another contributor to global climate change.
“We really don’t know how much methane is being released into the atmosphere,’’ Holt said. Methane emissions are much smaller than those produced by power plants spewing carbon dioxide but are much more potent sources of global warming, according to scientists.
“This is not a clean alternative,’’ agreed Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This is a dirty fuel. This technology is unsafe. It threatens our river and our watershed.’’
Dave Pringle, campaign director of New Jersey Environmental Federation, agreed. “Fracking is not a solution to climate change,’’ he said.
“You can’t engage in shale gas development and protect the environment,’’ added Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, an organization that focuses on protecting the Delaware River and its watershed.
Fracking also has generated opposition among New Jersey legislators. They have sought to ban the practice not only in New Jersey, but also in neighboring states by pressing policymakers there.
While many environmental groups oppose fracking, the low cost of natural gas produced by newfound deposits in the Marcellus Shale formations has led most business groups and the Christie administration to strongly back the practice.
It also has led to far lower energy bills for consumers who heat their homes with natural gas, with the state’s four gas utilities repeatedly offering customers credits on their bills in the past few of years. The utilities make no profit on the gas they purchase for customers, with earnings derived from delivering the fuel to homes and businesses.
Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed a bill declaring a permanent ban on fracking in New Jersey — even though no such drilling has occurred as of yet.