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Growing Tensions Within the Delaware River Basin Commission Halt Decision on Gas Drilling

Susan Phillips / StateImpactPA

An anti-drilling lawn sign sits on a lawn in East Stroudsburg, Pa.

The DRBC’s decision to cancel Monday’s vote shows how difficult it may be for the five-member multi-state commission to come to an agreement on regulating energy production in the basin. Marcellus Shale deposits lie below only two of the four states that comprise the DRBC. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers represents the federal government as a fifth voting member. But the river and its tributaries supply drinking water to about 15 million people in the metropolitan area that stretches from the river’s headwaters in upstate New York, downriver to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and into the Delaware estuary.
The decision to cancel the meeting came soon after Delaware Governor Jack Markell sent out a letter explaining why he would vote “no” on the proposed rules. Delaware’s Secretary of Environment and Energy Collin O’Mara says not enough scientific studies are available to make good decisions.

“Once the genie’s out of the bottle, it could take years if not decades to clean up contamination if we don’t get this right,” says O’Mara. And we’ve seen problems in other states where casings have failed. And we keep saying in every way possible that it’s much more important to be right than to try to move fast.”

O’Mara says the Commission had been making changes to the proposed rules up until two days ago, even though the revised regulations were posted on the internet two weeks ago. The Commission staff has been silent on the cancelation, issuing a press release on Friday morning with little explanation as to why the meeting was canceled and when or if a new meeting will be scheduled.
The official word from the DRBC was that Commissioners needed more time to study the regulations. But a release put out by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett revealed a growing division among members who, he says, could not come to agreement over the new rules.

“Today’s delay – driven more by politics than sound science – is a decision to put off the creation of much-needed jobs, to put off securing our energy independence, and to infringe upon the property rights of thousands of Pennsylvanians,” Corbett said.

It’s unclear how New York, New Jersey, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stand on the proposed rules. But New York is now engaged in a public hearing process over its own regulations. New York wants the Commission to delay a decision until the the Empire State’s Department of Environmental Conservation finalizes its own rules. New York’s Attorney General has sued to stop the DRBC from implementing any new rules until an environmental impact study is completed. Republican Governor Chris Christie has come under pressure to ban fracking in the Garden State, which is largely symbolic since the state has no significant natural gas deposits. Christie instead implemented a one-year moratorium on drilling. Still, it was expected that Christie would side with Pennsylvania and vote “yes.”
On the one hand, the Obama Administration has promoted natural gas as a cleaner burning fuel than coal, and as a way to wean the country off foreign oil. But Obama has also directed the EPA and the Department of Energy to study the environmental impacts of gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the process used to mine shale gas. So it’s unclear where the U.S. Army Corps comes down on the issue of whether to pass the new rules and lift the moratorium on drilling in the basin, or wait for more conclusive studies from the EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Energy. Environmentalists delivered petitions with 71,000 signatures to the Corps office in Philadelphia on Thursday, urging a ‘no’ vote.
Secretary O’Mara says Delaware is not the only representative on the Commission who wants to slow down the regulatory process in order to allow science to catch up.

“We are learning more every day, when we talk about the [Delaware River] Basin, it’s a small fraction of the total size of the Marcellus Shale,” said O’Mara. “We need to make sure best practices are driving decisions on regulations. …People are looking at the same science and coming to very different conclusions.”

O’Mara says two-thirds of Delaware’s residents get their drinking water from the river. He says Markell’s representatives have been pushing from behind the scenes to delay the vote, and make the newly revised rules available for public comment.

“In most of our states, if we made substantial changes to our regulations, after the public comment period, we would have to go back out for another round of public comment,” said O’Mara. And residents didn’t have that opportunity in this case.”

Environmentalists who planned to protest the lack of a new public comment period on the revised rules are taking a victory lap after this morning’s announcement. But for those landowners and leaseholders in northeast Pennsylvania, and New York’s southern tier, who want the moratorium lifted, the news comes as a disappointment. The Delaware River Basin Commission has not scheduled a new meeting. And that indicates the moratorium on drilling in the watershed will not be lifted soon.

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