A seven-year moratorium on natural gas development near the Delaware River would be replaced by a permanent ban under a proposal that's being developed by the agency that oversees the water supply of more than 15 million people.
The Delaware River Basin Commission, a regulatory body that has representatives from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government, could vote as early as next week to begin the process of enacting a formal ban on gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, according to a person with knowledge of the proposal. The person spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity because the plan is not scheduled to be made public until Friday.
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The ban would apply to two counties in Pennsylvania's northeastern tip that are part of the nation's largest gas field, the Marcellus Shale. More than 10,000 Marcellus wells have been drilled in other parts of Pennsylvania since a natural gas boom began nearly 10 years ago, but the industry has been prevented from developing its acreage in the sensitive Delaware watershed. Neighboring New York already has a statewide drilling ban.
Environmental groups that had been pushing for a ban applauded the development.
"It's a historic protection for the Delaware River basin and the drinking water of 15 million people," said Adam Garber, deputy director of PennEnvironment.
The basin commission, which regulates water quality and quantity in the Delaware and its tributaries, imposed a moratorium on drilling and fracking in 2010 to allow its staff to develop regulations for the gas industry. The five-member panel was scheduled to vote on a set of draft drilling regulations in 2011, but abruptly canceled it amid opposition from some commission members. There had been little public movement on the issue since, leaving the rural region in limbo.
The Delaware watershed supplies Philadelphia and half of New York City with drinking water. Environmental groups have long opposed gas drilling near the Delaware, citing the possibility of contamination of drinking water supplies and renowned fisheries. Pennsylvania regulators have identified 289 cases statewide in which a private water supply was affected by gas drilling.
"We totally support the adoption of a permanent ban," said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. "The water resources of the Delaware River watershed would be inevitably and indelibly degraded should oil and gas drilling be allowed to commence."
The drilling industry, as well as farmers and other landowners who had signed potentially lucrative drilling leases, had chafed at the moratorium. A landowners group had filed suit against the basin commission last year, arguing agency regulators had no legal authority to block natural gas development, but a federal judge dismissed it.
Industry officials point to studies by a neighboring regulatory agency, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, that found no link between intensive gas drilling in the Marcellus and degradation of the watershed.
"Banning the safe, tightly-regulated development of American natural gas is great news for OPEC, but it's bad news for working families," the environment and the economy, said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group. "We strongly encourage DRBC to make sound policy based on facts and science, not politically-charged hyperbole."
The office of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who's been attacked by environmental groups who say he's making concessions to the drilling industry, had no comment on the drilling ban proposal but said he continues to support a prohibition on drilling in the Delaware watershed.
A spokesman for the Delaware River Basin Commission declined to comment on the drilling ban proposal.