A regulatory agency that monitors the health of the Delaware River and its tributaries said Monday it will consider a permanent ban on drilling and fracking in the watershed, concluding after seven years of study that natural gas companies can't safely operate in an area that supplies drinking water to 15 million people.
The Delaware River Basin Commission said it will vote on a horizontal drilling and fracking measure at its meeting outside Philadelphia on Wednesday, the first step in a lengthy process to ban the technique that has enabled a U.S. production boom in shale gas and oil.
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Environmentalists who had long pushed for a ban, however, were upset by a provision that apparently would allow drillers to discharge fracking wastewater in the watershed "where permitted," with one group calling it a "Trojan horse."
"You do not protect the basin from fracking by allowing the dumping of fracking waste. This is a dirty water deal hidden behind a fracking ban," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
An agency spokesman did not immediately return an email seeking more information on the wastewater plan.
The Associated Press reported last week that DRBC, a regulatory body that has representatives from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government, plan to replace its current moratorium on natural gas development near the Delaware River with a permanent ban.
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 Delaware watershed. Neighboring New York already has a statewide drilling ban.
"DRBC's latest action — another example of the out-of-the-mainstream activist agenda that has taken hold in Pennsylvania — flies in the face of common sense as well as settled science," said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a drilling industry group.
The text of the resolution to be considered Wednesday says fracking "presents risks, vulnerabilities and impacts to surface and ground water resources across the country." The measure instructs the agency's executive director to craft a fracking ban by Nov. 30, to be followed by a public comment period.
Fracking is a technique that uses huge volumes of pressurized water, along with sand and chemicals, to crack open gas-bearing shale rock deep underground. Its environmental and health impacts remain hotly disputed.
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. A year later, the five-member panel was scheduled to vote on a set of draft regulations that would have allowed drilling and fracking to proceed, but it was abruptly canceled it amid opposition from some commission members.
A landowners group is challenging the DRBC's right to regulate drilling and fracking, filing a lawsuit against the agency last year. The matter is before a federal appeals court in Philadelphia.
The Delaware watershed supplies Philadelphia and half of New York City with drinking water.