Fracking banned in Delaware River Basin, but commission stops short on water transfers

Industry says vote was ‘misguided’ and that regulator doesn’t have the authority to ban fracking
Credit: (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
File photo: A fracking site

The Delaware River Basin Commission voted Thursday to permanently ban fracking for natural gas in the basin but deferred a decision on whether to also ban the transfer of fracking-related water into and out of the region it covers.

Four of the commissioners — the governors of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware — voted in favor of a resolution that formalizes a decade-long de facto ban on the controversial method of harvesting natural gas. A fifth commissioner, representing the federal government, abstained.

The decision by the interstate water regulator was foreshadowed by earlier statements from Gov. Phil Murphy and other governors calling for a permanent ban, and so was not a surprise. But it was hailed by environmentalists as a historic victory in a battle that began more than a decade ago when the gas industry was aggressively developing gas-rich areas of Pennsylvania.

“This is the culmination of more than a decade of work to fully ban fracking and its waste from the watershed and the actions today will lead to full permanent protections to the watershed and the 15 million people who receive drinking water from the watershed,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

Still, the commissioners’ separate vote to amend DRBC rules on the transfer of fracking-related water into and out of the basin means the environmental community still has work to do to achieve its long-term goal of a complete ban on fracking and related activities.

Thousands of public comments

The commissioners directed DRBC executive director Steve Tambini to propose amendments by the end of September, after which there will be a public-comment period. Tambini said almost 9,000 public comments were made on the fracking rule that the commission approved on Thursday.

“While we certainly hoped they would permanently ban all aspects of fracking from the drilling to the toxic wastewater to the export of water to support fracking elsewhere, this is a huge victory,” said Maya van Rossum, leader of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group. She predicted that a total ban would be in place in “a matter of months.”

Opponents of the natural gas industry feared that shale deposits beneath the basin would lead to the construction of thousands of natural gas wells in a region that supplies drinking water to some 15 million people. Allowing the gas industry into the basin, they argued, would risk contaminating its water with industrial chemicals that would threaten public health.

Credit: (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
The Delaware River at Washington Crossing

The commissioners showed Thursday that they accept the critics’ argument.

“If commercially recoverable gas is present in the basin, and if high-volume hydraulic fracturing were to proceed in the basin, then spills and releases of hydraulic fracturing chemicals, fluids and wastewater would adversely impact surface water and ground water, and losses of well integrity would result in subsurface fluid including gas migration, impairing drinking water resources and other uses established in the comprehensive plan,” said the resolution, which was read during a 30-minute conference.

The fluids “would contain salts, metals, radioactive elements, organic compounds, endocrine-disrupting and toxic chemicals, and chemicals for which toxicity has not been determined,” it said.

Murphy: ‘Significant risks’ to water

The point was underscored by Murphy who said in a statement that fracking poses “significant risks to the water resources of the Delaware River Basin.”

But Murphy’s support for Thursday’s resolution, and his pursuit of clean-energy goals such as offshore wind, are at odds with his vote at the DRBC last December to approve the construction of a liquefied natural gas export terminal at Gibbstown in Gloucester County, a project that would stimulate the production of gas and boost carbon emissions, critics say.

“The next important battle against fracking in the basin is to stop Gibbstown,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We won today on fracking and we’re going to win on fracking waste, and now we’ve got to stop the export of LNG.”

Despite New Jersey’s vote in favor of the LNG project, Murphy said later that he would work to “prevent” the transportation of LNG at the Gibbstown site.

Business groups attacked Thursday’s DRBC vote as an economically damaging and unwarranted restriction on the gas industry.

Criticism of the decision

Natural gas imports into New Jersey from Pennsylvania — where the fracking industry has grown strongly since the mid-2000s — have driven down energy costs for New Jersey businesses, and reduced carbon emissions by replacing coal; the permanent fracking ban endangers those gains, said Ray Cantor, a spokesman for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

He dismissed claims that fracking in the basin would have jeopardized public water supplies, and said the DRBC could have imposed tougher rules on water use rather than just banning the industry. “This is solely an effort to stop the use of clean natural gas, not a real concern over the safety of fracking,” he said.

The American Petroleum Institute Pennsylvania called the vote “entirely misguided” and said it had ignored a six-year study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showing that fracking had no widespread adverse effect on drinking water. “The DRBC’s blatant overreach is a missed opportunity to harness clean and abundant natural gas to power our state and nation,” said Stephanie Catarino Wissman, executive director of the trade group, in a statement.

Wissman said DRBC does not have the authority to ban fracking, an argument that is supported by a group of landowners in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, who are suing the regulator on the grounds that its ban is illegal. In January, a federal judge rejected a motion to dismiss the case.

Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club predicted the API will now sue the DRBC over the fracking ban, but he said the regulator would be able to argue that it is required to protect water quality for millions of people.

“They do have the authority because they regulate the water in the basin,” Tittel said. “Regulating drinking water for 15 million people doesn’t mean it should be filled with fracking fluid, and diesel and salts and benzene.”

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