With a deadline rapidly approaching, several environmental groups yesterday pressed the Christie administration to block new rules for natural gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin, saying they threaten the drinking water of 15 million people.
The groups urged the administration to convince the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to extend a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a practice that injects billions of gallons of water into deep wells in the Marcellus Shale deposits located in Pennsylvania and New York to capture the gas. DRBC is an interstate agency representing New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
The issue has become highly divisive, pitting environmentalists against natural gas developers who are tapping vast new supplies of natural gas that have been found in the Marcellus Shale in the Northeast. The discovery has pushed down the price of the fuel, one of the main ways of generating electricity and the primary way people heat their homes in the winter. It also raised worries that toxic chemicals from fracking are seeping into the Delaware River, the source of drinking water for three states, including three million people in New Jersey.
On Thursday, the deadline for the public to comment on the rules proposed by the commission ends. Environmentalists fear that if the agency adopts them, a moratorium now in place would expire, allowing widespread drilling to go forward.
"Fracking is the biggest threat to New Jersey’s water supply ever," said Jeff Tittel, speaking on the steps of the Statehouse in Trenton. "It is the biggest threat to the Delaware River Basin in its entire history."
Thirty-nine state legislators have joined with the groups in asking the administration to urge the DRBC to maintain a moratorium on natural gas drilling in the region until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) completes a cumulative impact study assessing the affect drilling will have on drinking water. The state of New York has a moratorium in place, too, but that is expected to end sometime this summer.
"The Delaware River is one of our most precious natural resources and needs to be protected," added Jim Walsh, eastern director for Food & Water Watch. More than 1,000 people had signed petitions urging the governor to retain the ban on fracking, Walsh noted.
The Marcellus Shale underlies approximately 36 percent of the Delaware basin in three states, overlapping much of the critical watershed lands overseen by the commission, according to commission staff. The agency expects between 15,000 and 18,000 wells will be drilled over the next two decades, using as much 90 billion gallons of water.
"There will be a devastating impact on both water quality and water quantity," Tittel said. Beyond concern over drinking water, the environmentalists say the proposed rules allow too much destruction of forest in the course of drilling for natural gas. For each well drilled, approximately 15 acres of land is disturbed, according to Tittel.
The lobbying for the moratorium occurs at a time when fracking is increasingly drawing interest of both state and federal lawmakers. In New Jersey, lawmakers have passed a bill to impose a moratorium on fracking in the state, even though there is no drilling occurring here and not much Marcellus Shale either. In Washington, the Senate Environment Committee is expected to discuss the issue at a hearing this week.