DRBC Acts to Ban Fracking in Delaware River Basin

But environmentalists unhappy with move to regulate fracking wastewater

Credit: NPR StateImpact
Fracking rig in Greene County, PA
The Delaware River Basin Commission is initiating a process that could ban drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas within the basin, the source of drinking water for 15 million people in four states.

In a notice issued yesterday afternoon, the regulatory agency announced it would consider directing its staff to develop new regulations to address natural-gas development within the Delaware River Basin, including rules governing wastewater generated from drilling activities from outside the region.

Natural-gas development is one of the more contentious environmental issues within the four-state region. Fracking — injecting huge quantities of water and some chemicals into rock formations to extract gas — has led to lower fuel costs for both consumers and businesses, as vast new supplies have been tapped in Pennsylvania and other states.

Opposed to fracking

But environmentalists and many communities oppose the practice, fearing it will contaminate drinking water. New York, one of four states on the commission, enacted a statewide ban on fracking last year.

In moving to adopt new regulations, the DRBC is expected to initiate a rule-making process at a meeting tomorrow at Bucks Community College that would be published by the end of November.

No drilling has occurred within the basin since the commission adopted a moratorium back in 2010. The moratorium was enacted to give time to adopt regulations governing drilling, but the commission never did so after some members balked.

Environmental groups are happy the commission is moving to ban fracking within the basin, but were taken aback by the concurrent decision to consider adopting regulations for storage, treatment, and disposal of fracking wastewater within the region. They also oppose any effort to allow water withdrawals from the basin for natural gas drilling elsewhere.

‘A total ban’

“We want a total ban on fracking from start to go,’’ said Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper. “If you want to protect the watershed, you have to ban the entire process.’’

“We have work to do,’’ agreed Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We want to adopt a ban, but not become a dumping ground for fracking wastewater.’’

In New Jersey, there has been no drilling for natural gas, but several licensed facilities have accepted wastewater from fracking operations. The Legislature tried to ban disposal of fracking wastewater in the state, but Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed the measure.

Business interests have welcomed cheaper supplies tapped by the new drilling activities. They have provided a boost to business here in New Jersey by lowering the cost of a vital commodity in manufacturing operations.

“We want to make sure sound science substantiates an outright ban,’’ said Michael Egenton, an executive vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce.

David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, said the DRBC’s action flies “in the face of common sense as well as sound science.’’ He said the regulatory overreach and a fundamentally broken permitting process cost local jobs and investments without helping the environment and put economic prosperity at risk.

The DRBC is a federal/state government agency responsible for managing the water resources within the 13,539-square-mile Delaware River Basin. The five members are the governors of the four states and the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers North Atlantic Division, who represents the federal government.

The Christie administration has been supportive of efforts to build out the natural gas infrastructure in the region, but Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy this summer called for a permanent ban on fracking.