Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Topics

View of the Delaware River from Bucks County, Pa.

Delaware River Basin Commission: Battleground for Gas Drilling

Background

In 1961, President Kennedy signed a compact with the Governors of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, which created a partnership between those states and the federal government to manage water in the Delaware river basin. The Delaware River Basin Commission consists of governors from the four states, and the federal government is represented by the Army Corps of Engineers. The DRBC manages water quality, withdrawals, droughts, floods, conservation and permitting for the river and its tributaries. It’s funded by the states, the federal government, permit fees, fines, as well as public and private grants.

The Delaware River is the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi with its headwaters located in Hancock, N.Y. It stretches 330 miles and empties into the Delaware Bay.  The river provides drinking water to about 15 million people in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. In 1968 the Delaware River was declared a “Wild and Scenic River” by President Lyndon Johnson, which affords it special protection. Parts of the river have also received the designation of “special protection waters.” Two primary regulatory functions of the DRBC are water quality and quantity. The DRBC has about 30 staff members, including several hydrogeologists and water resource engineers. Before the DRBC stepped into the natural gas debate, it was an agency that conducted most of its business free of public scrutiny. But the development of the Marcellus Shale has changed that.

About one-third of the Delaware River Basin, in New York and Pennsylvania, lies above Marcellus Shale natural gas deposits. In May of 2009, DRBC executive director Carol Collier issued an “Executive Director Determination” that all natural gas production activity in the basin needed to be reviewed by the Commission. Collier was concerned about the water withdrawals needed for drilling as well as the impact on water quality from the drilling practice known as “hydraulic fracturing,” or fracking. In May 2010 the five Commissioners voted unanimously to hold off on any decisions regarding drilling in the Basin until new regulations were adopted.

The de-facto moratorium imposed by the Commission prevents drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania’s Wayne and Pike counties, as well as parts of southern New York, until the DRBC establishes its own regulations for gas drilling. If their rules are more stringent than state regulations, the DRBC rules would trump Pennsylvania and New York. The gas industry has cried foul, saying the DRBC is overstepping its authority. Environmentalists applauded the move at first. But have since criticized the Commission for not doing a more thorough environmental impact study, or proposing tighter regulations.

In December of 2010, the DRBC released its proposals. Since then they have held public hearings and have gotten an unprecedented response from both sides of the issue. In May, 2011 New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against the federal government, charging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its role as a member of the Commission violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The lawsuit says NEPA requires the DRBC to do a more thorough environmental review before implementing any new regulations. In August, 2011 environmental groups filed a similar lawsuit.

After reviewing more than 60,000 public comments, the DRBC posted its revised draft regulations online in early November, 2011. Environmentalist groups, such as the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, criticized the draft rules and continued to lobby for a more extensive environmental impact study. Environmentalists say the new rules do not go far enough to protect drinking water supplies. They planned a large demonstration and civil disobedience at a scheduled November 21, 2011 meeting where the DRBC planned to vote on the new rules. But just days before that meeting, Delaware Governor Jack Markell announced his intent to reject the proposed rules. Like the environmentalists, Markell wants the DRBC to conduct an environmental impact study before drafting new regulations. New York, which is currently engaged in drafting its own state regulations, also wanted more time. With Pennsylvania and New Jersey likely to approve the new regulations, that put the federal government in the position of casting a deciding vote. But before hundreds of protestors descended upon Trenton, NJ, the divided Commission canceled the meeting, and more than a year later, has yet to revisit the subject in a public forum.

Latest Posts

Pennsylvania cuts funding to Delaware River commission

Pennsylvania is cutting its share of funding to the agency that oversees issues from water quality to flood management in the Delaware River watershed, the Scranton Times-Tribune reports. The Delaware River Basin Commission, or DRBC, is run by the federal government and the governors of the four states that share the watershed – New York, [...]

$35M initiative aims to improve water quality in the Delaware River basin

WHYY Photo Wildlife along the Delaware River at Washington Avenue Green Park in Philadelphia. The Delaware River watershed supplies drinking water to millions of people. Managing water quality is a challenge that changes from upstate New York down to the Delaware Bay. The William Penn Foundation announced today a $35 million initiative to tackle this [...]

Water utility executive tapped to lead Delaware River Basin Commission

The multi-state agency that manages water in the Delaware River Basin has tapped a Pennsylvania American Water executive to be its new leader. Steve Tambini will become the Delaware River Basin Commission‘s fourth executive director. While the commission’s jobs include managing water quality, water withdrawals and flood mitigation, one of its most salient responsibilities in [...]

Corbett proposes DRBC funding cut as gas drilling stalemate continues

The agency that oversees issues from drinking water to flood management in the Delaware River watershed stands to loose about 20 percent of its funding if Governor Corbett’s new budget is approved. It is the latest controversy amid an ongoing stalemate at the five-member commission over natural gas drilling. The Delaware River Basin Commission, or [...]

Pa. Democratic gubernatorial candidates debate environmental issues

Holly Otterbein/WHYY Eight Democratic Pa. gubernatorial candidates are shown at a debate focused on environmental sustainability held at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. Eight Democrats looking to unseat Republican Governor Tom Corbett gathered in Philadelphia on Monday night for a debate about environmental sustainability. Corbett was invited to participate, but did [...]

DRBC Head Carol Collier To Retire In 2014

Carol Collier, longtime Executive Director of the Delaware River Basin Commission has announced she will be retiring come March 2014 and she has a lot on her to-do list. One thing Collier hopes to accomplish in the next six months is “defining a strategy for natural gas in the basin.” Collier addressed those present at [...]

Newfield Exploration Says Low Natural Gas Prices Led to Wayne County Lease Terminations

For the past several weeks, Wayne County property owners who have leased their mineral rights for gas drilling have gotten some unwelcome letters. Hess Corporation and Newfield Appalachia have terminated leases negotiated almost four years ago, in August 2009. Keith Schmidt, a spokesman for Newfield Exploration, says low natural gas prices led to the decision. [...]

Gas Companies Drop Wayne County Leases

Hess Corporation and Newfield Appalachia have ended lease agreements with about 1300 property owners covering 70,000 acres in Wayne County, where the Delaware River Basin Commission has in place a de facto moratorium on gas drilling. Members of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance began receiving letters from the gas companies on Friday. The letters, [...]

DRBC Responds to Pro-Drilling Critics

The Delaware River Basin Commission isn’t getting much love these days. In just the past couple of weeks, the Commission’s executive director Carol Collier has gotten critical letters from Sen. Pat Toomey, Gov. Tom Corbett, the Wayne County Commissioners, and a group of leaseholders called the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance. Each of the letters [...]

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »

Economy
Education