Gas Drilling Along the Delaware River Remains Uncertain
The Marcellus Shale natural gas formation stretches across about two-thirds of Pennsylvania, from the southwest corner of Washington County to the northeast corner of Wayne county. But drill rigs have yet to tap the gas that lies beneath Wayne and Pike counties. That’s because a drilling moratorium exists until the regulatory agency that oversees drilling in areas near the Delaware river implements new drilling rules. That vote was supposed to happen Monday in Trenton. But as hundreds of activists prepared to protest the meeting, and risk arrest, the Delaware River Basin Commission canceled the event with little explanation.
Throughout Philadelphia, its suburbs and small towns along the Delaware river, you can now see bumper stickers that read “no frackin’ way” and yellow lawn signs that read “Don’t Drill the Delaware.” These are areas that don’t lie above any natural gas deposits. But the opposition to gas drilling among residents who live downstream is growing.
“We hear a great debate over this right of the Constitution and that right of the Constitution, but as far as I’m concerned the number one right is the right to live and in order to live you need air to breath, and you need water to drink…”
That’s John Scorsone, speaking at an anti-drilling rally in Philadelphia outside of the office of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps represents the federal government on the five-member Delaware River Basin Commission, or DRBC. The Commission was created in 1961 to manage the river’s water quality, as well as quantity. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government all have a seat on the Commission. All four states use the Delaware river as a source of drinking water. But this is the first time the Commission has had to make decisions about energy production.
Tracy Carluccio is with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, one of the most vocal and active environmental groups seeking to halt drilling along the Delaware river.
“Fifteen million people get their water from the Delaware river. It’s one of the largest watershed water supplies in the nation. There’s no other place to get this water.”
Carluccio says she believes that no matter what regulations are in place, the drilling practice known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, will one day pollute the river.
“Philadelphia is downstream from where this fracking is going on,” said Carluccio. Philadelphia is also in the pathway of pipelines and compressor stations and liquefied natural gas stations may pop up in the [Chesapeake] Bay. So Philadelphia is in the crosshairs here.”
Fracking uses a combination of pressurized water, sand and chemicals to “fracture” the shale rock and release the gas. The DRBC, has spent the last several years drawing up new regulations, taking public comment and revising their proposal. But Carluccio says the rules now on the table, are not stringent enough to protect the water. She wants buffer zones from surface water increased. And environmentalists like her want the DRBC to conduct an environmental impact study before drawing up any new rules. So they planned a large demonstration outside the scheduled meeting, renting busses to take hundreds of people from Philadelphia to Trenton.
But not everyone closely watching the actions of the DRBC agrees with Carluccio. About 140 miles north of Philadelphia, in Wayne county, property owners like Curt Coccodrilli, want the drilling moratorium lifted.
“What we’re looking at right now is literally the dividing line, what I call the economic iron curtain, between the Delaware River Basin and the Susquehanna river basin.”
Above Coccodrilli’s back porch, just behind his pond, are the Moosic Mountains, which serve as the dividing line between the Susquehanna river basin and the Delaware river basin. The Susquehanna River Basin has a similar Commission, but it only oversees water withdrawals, not water quality. The multi-state Delaware River Basin Commission has regulatory authority over the water that runs through the bulk of Coccodrilli’s land. The DRBC planned to vote on its new gas drilling rules this week. And a simple majority of three yes votes would have lifted their moratorium. That would mean an additional income of about $20,000 dollars a year for Coccodrilli. When the DRBC put in the moratorium, his bonus payments stopped. He says gas drilling has helped bring prosperity to other parts of the state.
“But over here it’s depression and recession in the County,” said Coccodrilli. “So what do you do? Do I listen to the environmental illuminati as they want to heap their almighty rules from above on us? I mean they treat this area as their own state park.”
In fact Coccodrilli and the members of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance do consider themselves environmental stewards. They spent two years negotiating environmental standards into a lease with Hess Corporation and Newfield Exploration Company, combining their more than 100,000 acres to gain leverage with the drilling companies. For them, natural gas provides an alternative to America’s addiction to foreign oil, which they say led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They say natural gas is also an alternative to coal fired power plants, which create acid rain. Both of Coccodrilli’s grandfathers worked in the coal mines and both died of black lung.
“If you value American independence away from foreign strife, and you want a cheap clean fuel source then I think you’re foolish not to extract in the Delaware river basin,” said Coccodrilli.
Coccodrilli planned to make the two-and-a-half hour drive to Monday’s meeting in Trenton, and celebrate a “yes” vote on the new drilling rules, which would have lifted the moratorium. But late Thursday night, Delaware Governor Jack Markell sent out a letter stating he would vote “no.” Markell says the Commission needs more time to do an environmental impact study. Delaware’s Secretary of Environment and Energy Collin O’Mara, tells StateImpact that New York state also thought the vote should be delayed. The lack of consensus sent the DRBC into turmoil, and on Friday, the Commission canceled Monday’s meeting. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett sent out a statement saying the decision to cancel the meeting was political, and not based on “sound science.” For now, no new meeting is scheduled, a sign that the moratorium on drilling in the Delaware river basin will not be lifted soon. Activists like Tracy Carluccio from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network still plan to march in Trenton and celebrate a victory.