Delaware River Basin Commission Postpones Vote on 'Fracking' Plan

An obscure interstate commission had planned to take one of the most closely watched votes in its history on Monday when it was to decide whether to open up portions of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania to the controversial practice of shale gas drilling. But this morning it was announced that the vote would be put off indefinitely.

The Delaware River Basin Commission regulates water quality and supply in a 13,539-square mile area that is the source of drinking water for 15 million people. Governors of the commission's four member states, along with a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had planned to vote on draft regulations over drilling in the region, which sits atop the lucrative and largely untapped Marcellus Shale formation. The DRBC plan would lift a moratorium that industry groups say has stifled employment and local revenues.

The commission announced early Friday morning (November 18) that it will postpone the vote to allow for further review. That decision follows Delaware Governor Jack Markell's announcement that he planned to vote no.

"Once hydrofracturing begins in the basin, the proverbial "faucet" cannot be turned off, with any damage to our freshwater supplies likely requiring generations of effort to clean up," Markell wrote Thursday in a letter to other voting members of the commission. "In this case, it is more important to get it right, than to be fast."

As has been the case elsewhere in the country, the prospect of natural gas drilling has spurred heated debate, largely due to the method used to speed up extraction of gas stored in shale deposits. Through horizontal hydraulic fracturing — also known as "fracking" — engineers free the gas by blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals deep into wells.

Environmental groups fear that fracking will leave local water supplies vulnerable to contamination. One example they cite is a blowout in rural Pennsylvania last April that sent thousands of gallons of chemical-laced fluids into a stream. Another is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recent discovery of high levels of cancer-causing compounds — including one used in fracking — in monitoring wells drilled into an aquifer in a heavily-fracked region in Wyoming. The EPA has yet to comment on the data while it investigates the cause of contamination.

"Accidents like that are bound to happen," says Jim Walsh, Eastern region director for the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. What particularly concerns Walsh is a newly inserted provision in the commission's plan that leaves it to drilling companies to monitor and report water and wastewater usage."This is a tremendous conflict of interest," he says.

Industry representatives insist that fracking is safe and hasn't been directly linked to the pollution of drinking water. Representatives have said that the inadequate sealing of wells, not fracking itself, is to blame for several cases of contaminated drinking water, with methane or other toxic chemicals, uncovered by years of reporting by ProPublica .

The DRBC provisions would allow for gas well pads to be located as close as 100 feet from bodies of water. The number of wells that could be drilled during an initial 18-month assessment period would be capped at 300. The four states would still be free to write more stringent requirements, or ban fracking within their borders, if they want to.

The commission has been criticized by those who say it should have first undertaken a full environmental review before drafting regulations. Those are the grounds of a lawsuit filed in May by the State of New York against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In New York, where public opinion is split on fracking, hearings began this week on proposed state-level regulations that would lift the state's own moratorium on the practice.

The DRBC plan has drawn the tepid support of industry advocates, who are happy about the possibility of seeing the moratorium removed but would prefer fewer regulations. "While the regulations aren't perfect, moving forward with more clean-burning natural gas development in the region will mean more jobs and more revenue for local governments," says Reid Porter, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute.

Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, says she is pleased that the plan would keep state regulators in charge of overseeing the construction and development of projects — although a recent Greenwire investigation found that states rarely penalize oil and gas drilling companies for the thousands of environmental violations they commit each year. According to Greenwire , Pennsylvania was the most aggressive state in 2010 when it comes to enforcing violations. But even then, fines or penalties were levied for only 117 of 2,704 violations, amounting to about $3.7 million — a miniscule portion of company revenues. 

Related Stories