Energy. Environment. Economy.

What New York’s fracking ban means for drilling along the Delaware river

A drilling protest sign sits on the lawn of a home along the Delaware River.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drilling protest sign sits on the lawn of a home along the Delaware River.

The surprise decision by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking and prevent the development of Marcellus Shale gas in that state could have ripple effects in eastern Pennsylvania. New York issued a lengthy scientific report on potential health and environmental impacts Wednesday. And Cuomo’s subsequent decision could mean a permanent ban on drilling in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, where the Delaware River Basin Commission has authority to regulate shale gas drilling.

The current de facto moratorium on drilling for gas along the Delaware river in both New York and Pennsylvania exists because the four states and a federal representative who comprise the Delaware River Basin Commission could not agree on how to do it. In 2010 the DRBC instructed staff members to propose new regulations. After receiving thousands of comments, the DRBC revised its proposals and scheduled a vote in the fall of 2011. But the lack of consensus among the commissioners prompted them to cancel the meeting, and they have not taken up the issue in a public forum since. At the time, Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Corbett was the strongest advocate for drilling. Delaware’s governor opposed it. New Jersey and the Obama Administration kept silent. And New York was on the fence.

But this week’s decision by Governor Cuomo has taken New York off the fence. And when combined with the promise by Pennsylvania Governor-elect Tom Wolf not to open the Delaware watershed to drilling, New York’s decision to ban fracking altogether changes the picture. This is good news to activists like Maya van Rossum, from the Delaware Riverkeeper. Van Rossum has been fighting to keep gas rigs out of eastern Pennsylvania since 2008. She says New York’s health and environmental study, along with Cuomo’s subsequent decision, means her work has paid off.

“It was an arms-length process really designed to secure a fair and earnest scientific analysis,” said van Rossum. “It was not a political process, which is what you had in Pennsylvania, a political process that tries to use faux-science as a shield for bad decision-making.”

The 184-page report by the New York health commissioner documents a number of health and environmental risks, and concludes that too many gaps in the science remain.

Van Rossum says she wants the DRBC to permanently ban drilling in the Delaware watershed.

“I’m certainly feeling very very positive that the ban could become permanent,” said van Rossum. “It’s my expectiation that the New York decision will embolden [Governor-elect] Wolf to do the right thing and protect our watershed, but there’s always the possibility that the politics will play out differently.”

Although Wolf made the campaign promise to maintain the moratorium in the Delaware watershed, he has criticized New York’s decision and says he doesn’t agree that gaps in the science exist. And it’s unclear how the DRBC will react. The commission could simply maintain the status quo.

The DRBC’s former executive director Carol Collier says she hopes the report and New York’s decision will embolden the commissioners to end the stalemate.

“I think this decision by New York gives strength to the Commission to move forward,” said Collier. “It’s been in purgatory for so long it would be nice to have a decision so everyone knew what the situation was in the Delaware basin.”

Collier now Like von Rossum, Collier says the decision was based on a thorough review of current research.

“They have done a lot of good science and bench marking both in their environmental assessment and health assessment,” she said. And she says she hopes this will influence the incoming Wolf Administration.

“I see a more learned approach to drilling,” said Collier. “Looking at what science is needed, the need for more planning, should all landscapes be treated equally. Are there some areas where drilling should be banned or held to higher standards? It gives me hope that even if drilling [continues] in other parts of Pennsylvania that it will be done in a more thoughtful way. And I think that’s something that’s been sorely lacking.”

While the moratorium has been in place, DRBC staffers have been gathering baseline water quality data in preparation for future drilling. But it’s unclear how the Commissioners will act. And it’s still unclear what New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or the President will decide.  But come January, it appears that a majority of states, Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware will come out in support of a continued moratorium. The commissioners could maintain the status quo and simply not act, or they could schedule a vote, or even revise the proposed regulations once again. The next public meeting will take place sometime in March.


  • Ladderback

    Why would Wolf be opposed to drilling in the Delaware basin when he is in favor of drilling in the Susquehanna Basin which is upstream from . . .York, his home and which continues to drink water from the Susquehanna. Are Philadelphians more important than Yorkers? Are they more important than people in Pittsburgh? I don’t get it.

    • KeepTapWaterSafe

      There should be no fracking in any watersheds! Can’t drink money.

      • Ladderback

        You do realize that every place is a watershed, don’t you? Are you also willing to pay landowners for the water that they provide to you in these watersheds?

        • KeepTapWaterSafe

          Yes, I am. When a landowner’s water and land usage positively informs the aquifer where my water originates, I would absolutely favor fair recompense. Are you aware that more than 200 water bodies have been damaged by fracking operations in Pennsylvania since 2008? It’s starting to really add up. Also, those triple well-bore seals the gas industry advertises will only last 50-60 years, at best, before they start leaking. Will the landowners who lease to drillers pay for the replugging of all the wells? Pennsylvania has a huge existing problem with abandoned conventional gas wells, as it is.

    • AlSever

      At the Public Meeting on fracking held about 5 years ago in the Delaware County Community college, I believe the audience and panel made it extremely clear that people living in the Delaware and Schuylkill watersheds ARE MUCH more important than the rural local yokels in other parts of Pa. Looking at the BIG picture , wouldn’t it be helpful to the Chesapeake Bay if there were no people left in the watershed?

      • Ladderback

        The biggest problem for the watershed is all the growth occurring in York, Lancaster, and Dauphin County. Why not just stop those places from building houses and let the land revert to woodland. I’m sure that they would not mind.

  • JimBarth

    First of all, there is already a moratorium declared by the PA legislature for the lower part of the Delaware River Basin, aka ‘where the wealthier people live” as in Bucks County, for example. How Corbett supported this, while “pushing crazy” for fracking in the Upper Delaware is beyond logic. He threatened the Commonwealth’s funding of the DRBC, he sent letters and made statements. Krancer, his then Sec’y of PA DEP compared Delaware to the tail of a dog, stating that it even smelled like the tail of a dog. Still, a moratorium held in the Upper Delaware because that State, along with NYS, would not vote for fracking, leaving an apparent 2 vs. 2 tie, that only the A.C.E. Federal component could break, and the Feds did not want to be the deciding vote in this case. Now, that 2 vs. 2 vote is firmly entrenched, combined with the fact that the State of NJ overwhelmingly does not want shale gas extraction to proceed in the DRB, leaving Chris Christie in the position of voting against the interests of his own constituents, something he is becoming used to as he thinks of running for POTUS. That is a weak vote for fracking. Wolf ran for Governor having clearly stated that he would support a continued moratorium in the Delaware River Basin, whose vast majority of PA residents within that Basin firmly oppose such drilling. The current situation, including Wolf’s position, is not really “hard to get”.

  • JimBarth

    It’s very nice to “hear” Carol Collier’s voice on this. She and her staff had a terrifically difficult job, and they performed it very well. Thanks to them for performing under such pressure, and, for keeping their cool while so doing.

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