Pennsylvania

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Frustrated Landowners Threaten to Sue DRBC Over Inaction on Gas Drilling

Peter Wynne and Curt Coccadrilli are members of the Northern Wayne Property Alliance, which has threatened to sue the DRBC if it doesn't schedule a vote on the proposed natural gas regulations.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Peter Wynne and Curt Coccadrilli are members of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, which has threatened to sue the DRBC if it doesn't schedule a vote on the proposed natural gas regulations.

As the Delaware River Basin Commission meets today in Wilmington, one thing not on their agenda is any decision on natural gas drilling. But a group of natural gas leaseholders from Wayne County have threatened to sue the Delaware River Basin Commission if the agency doesn’t act in some way on its own proposed drilling regulations at Wednesday’s meeting. The Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance is an organization of landowners from Wayne County who together negotiated lease terms with two energy companies to drill for natural gas. But a de facto moratorium imposed by the DRBC on gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin has prevented gas development on their land. The Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance has been on one end of a tug-of-war over gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin that has environmental groups pushing for more stringent gas regulation, and the DRBC’s own member states disagreeing over how to move forward. The Alliance wants the Commission to either schedule a vote on proposed regulations, or step aside and allow state regulations to be enforced.

The DRBC holds a unique position within the debate over fracking. It’s origins date back to a compact signed by four states and the federal government in 1961 to manage water quality, water withdrawals, droughts, floods, conservation and permitting for the river and its tributaries. The Commission is composed of the governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and the federal government is represented by the Army Corps of Engineers.

More than two years ago, in December 2010, the DRBC released it’s proposed gas drilling regulations for the Basin. Public hearings and comments broke all records and illustrated the intense division over the issue. The DRBC published its revised draft regulations in November 2011 with a meeting scheduled that month to vote on the proposal. But the meeting was quickly cancelled after it became clear that the members of the Commission did not agree. Since then, the Commission has been silent on the issue.

The Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance argues the Commission’s inaction on its own proposals have threatened the property owners’ ability to develop their mineral rights, which could result in termination of their lease agreements. In a letter to the DRBC’s executive director Carol Collier last week, the NWPOA executive director Bob Rutledge says the leaseholders spent time and money negotiating a good lease agreement that incorporates environmental provisions.

“Aided by highly qualified attorneys who specialized in environmental and Pennsylvania law who knew the oil and gas industry,” wrote Rutledge, “the Alliance spent two and a half years, an immense amount of volunteer time, and nearly three quarters of a million dollars to procure a precedent-setting lease that is among the most community and environmentally friendly leases in existence. These leases were then executed with two of the most reliable exploration companies in the country.”

Rutledge writes that some of the landowners, who are impoverished, may be forced to sell some of their land to developers.

“It is hard to predict what community and environmental problems new residential and commercial development could bring,” wrote Rutledge.

Rutledge also writes that the DRBC is being “held hostage by an emotion-driven anti-drilling community made up mostly of people outside our region and by activist staffers within the DRBC who are exercising their personal biases.”

A spokesman for the DRBC says the agency understands the leaseholders’ frustration, but says the stakes are high, and the issues complex.

“The Commissioners are looking carefully at all the science the best management practices,” says DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert.  ”And how to strike the appropriate balance between natural gas development and protecting the environment and public health.”

Rupert says the Commissioners decide how to move forward, not the staff.

The letter from the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance did not specify the legal theory on which they would sue. But in the meantime, the Delaware Riverkeeper, an environmental group opposed to drilling in the Delaware River Basin, sent a memo to the DRBC in response to the Alliance letter. In it, the Riverkeeper says the NWPOA would have no legal basis for a lawsuit.

No one from the NWPOA gave public comment at Tuesday’s DRBC meeting in Wilmington and nothing related to natural gas drilling was on the agenda. But on Wednesday, the Commission meets to vote on a number of issues and the Commission Chair could choose to comment on the Alliance letter, perhaps signaling whether or not the DRBC is any closer to an agreement on gas drilling regulations.

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