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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. 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. 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.

New York decided to ban fracking completely within its borders at the end of 2014, citing health concerns.

A group of landowners in Wayne County, Pennsylvania sued the DRBC in federal court in May 2016, arguing the agency does not have the authority to regulate gas drilling.

On November 30, 2017 the DRBC released proposed rules that would ban fracking in all shale formations in the Delaware River Basin, established a public comment period and scheduled public hearings.

Latest Posts

Fracking ban proposed for Delaware River basin; ‘significant risks’ cited

The Delaware River Basin Commission on Thursday proposed a ban on fracking for natural gas in the basin. The interstate regulator said it had determined that high-volume hydraulic fracturing “poses significant, immediate and long-term risks” to the waters of the basin, including so-called Special Protection waters that have a high ecological, recreational or scenic value.

DRBC takes a step toward banning fracking in Northeast Pa.

Cheers erupted at the Delaware River Basin Commission meeting Wednesday on the campus of Bucks County Community College in Newtown after commissioners from three states including Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware, approved a resolution that could lead to a fracking ban in the Delaware River watershed. New Jersey abstained and the federal representative from the [...]

DRBC confirms it will consider banning fracking in basin

The Delaware River Basin Commission confirmed on Monday that it will consider adopting new rules that would ban natural gas drilling in the basin, a policy that would formalize a de facto moratorium that has been in place since 2010. The interstate regulator of water quality and supply in the basin said in a statement [...]

AP: DRBC planning to propose permanent fracking ban

The Delaware River Basin Commission plans to propose a permanent ban on fracking, according to a report by the Associated Press. The AP cited an anonymous source within the DRBC, who said the agency planned an announcement on Friday. DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert, would not comment other than to refer to the official DRBC agenda [...]

NYC reservoir release plan would cut flows in Delaware River

New York City is planning to sharply reduce the amount of water it releases into the Upper Delaware River this fall in an effort to revive multi-state talks on how to manage the river’s water resources to meet a range of demands including drinking-water supply, fishing, tourism, and environmental protection. The city’s Department of Environmental [...]

Battle over Delaware River water supplies worries conservationists

Update: On Thursday June 1, New York City Department of Environmental Protection agreed to voluntarily release water based on last year’s “Flexible Flow Management Plan,” which will continue to provide trout streams with sufficient cold water and provide flood mitigation. The upper part of the Delaware River hosts some of the world’s best trout fishing [...]

DRBC considers new fish rule to mark gains in water quality

Water quality in the Delaware River estuary has improved over the last few decades to the point where regulators are considering adding the breeding of fish to a list of designated “uses” for that section of the river. The Delaware River Basin Commission will hold a public hearing on April 6 to discuss its proposal [...]

Judge throws out challenge to DRBC authority over gas drilling in basin

A federal judge dismissed a challenge to the Delaware River Basin Commission’s right to regulate oil and gas development in the region. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Mariani on Thursday threw out a lawsuit by a group of Wayne County landowners who said the commission, an interstate regulator, lacks the authority to review and approve [...]

DRBC says it’s still weighing gas drilling rules, but no decision on the horizon

The Delaware River Basin Commission is continuing to examine rules that might allow natural gas drilling in the basin but it isn’t close to a decision, and would submit any plans for a new rule on the issue to public comment, the federal government’s representative on the commission said Wednesday. Lt. Col. Michael Bliss of [...]

Battle re-emerging over fracking along Delaware River

Defenders of a longstanding de-facto moratorium on natural gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin say there are gathering signs of a renewed push to allow natural gas production by the industry and its allies. Environmental groups including Delaware Riverkeeper Network say officials from the Delaware River Basin Commission, which is composed of representatives from [...]

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