Natural gas drilling moving closer to Delaware River basin

Posted: May 17, 2011

Although the Delaware River has a moratorium on natural gas drilling until rules are in place, companies are already lining up.

The commission overseeing the river has granted one request for withdrawal of water for natural gas activities, and two more are being evaluated. Yet a fourth was up for a vote last week before it was tabled because of the large flurry of public comments.

Even though the approvals aren't sufficient to allow companies to start drilling now, critics say that any consideration by the Delaware River Basin Commission is premature.

The commissioners say that they anticipate so much work, they simply need to start.

Either way, it signals that natural gas exploration - a common sight in central and Western Pennsylvania - is moving ever closer to the Delaware basin and its river, which provides drinking water for 15 million people, including Philadelphia and many of its suburbs.

"It looks more and more inevitable that there is going to be drilling in the basin," said John Quigley, former secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, now an environmental consultant. "The question is under what rules?"

Even with DRBC permission, the water cannot be taken and used until the commission finishes its rules and more permits are issued.

But getting water withdrawals now will undoubtedly speed things along once regulations are adopted, said Ross H. Pifer, a professor at Pennsylvania State University's Dickinson School of Law. "It just removes one potential hurdle. There are a number of approvals companies are going to need to drill, and this removes one of those from their to-do list."

The proposed DRBC rules, which are generally stricter than Pennsylvania's regulations, were first presented in December. A public-comment period ended April 15.

Originally, staffers estimated final approval would not come until September, at the earliest. But commission Executive Director Carol R. Collier said last week that the agency had received 58,000 submissions, which have to be sorted and responded to.

After that, the commission will decide whether to alter the proposed regulations in response.

The five commission members include the governors of the four states with land in the basin - Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware - and a federal representative.

Formed 50 years ago, before many major environmental regulations were in place, the commission has broader powers than the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which regulates only water withdrawals, and the Ohio River basin, which has no commission.

Also, the Delaware basin has waters clean enough to warrant a federal "special protection" designation, which prompts tighter regulatory scrutiny.

The request before the commission Wednesday was from XTO Energy Inc., a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp.

XTO wants to withdraw up to 250,000 gallons of water a day from a tributary of the Delaware River, Oquaga Creek in Broome County, N.Y., to support natural gas exploration and production.

A company spokesman noted that the application was made a year ago. He said the company had drilling activity in 14 states, including Pennsylvania, but that this was its first venture into the Delaware River basin.

New York also has a moratorium on drilling.

As is it done today, drilling for natural gas is a water-intensive activity. For each well, several million gallons of water are mixed with other chemicals and injected into the ground under high pressure to free the gas.

At an impassioned two-hour hearing last week, critics told the commission it was acting prematurely. "Please, what is the hurry?" said Julie Edgar, who said she was a "concerned citizen" from the Lehigh Valley.

Others said DRBC's consideration of water withdrawals smacked of a backroom agreement with the industry.

Since New York state and the DRBC have not yet authorized hydrofracking, "then what is the message that is being communicated with this withdrawal docket?" asked Edie Kantrowitz, who identified herself as a concerned citizen from New York City. "Is it a done deal?"

Penn State's Pifer doubts it. "As you look at the various governmental agencies that have acted in Pennsylvania, I think it would be a real stretch to consider the approach of the DRBC as pro-drilling," he said.

Many critics have called for the commission to halt all regulatory activity until a cumulative environmental-impact study can be done.

For that, the commission needed a congressional appropriation. U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D., N.Y.) and others got committee approval for $1 million for the study, but the measure later failed.

A Hinchey spokesman said the commission should not give any approvals before the study was done.

But the commission's federal representative, Brig. Gen. Peter A. DeLuca of the Army Corps of Engineers, said at the hearing Wednesday that it was time to move ahead.

He said that the commission didn't want to get caught in a Catch-22 situation, "where we wait for a study that there is no funding for."

DeLuca said that considering water withdrawals now was prudent. "When the regulations are done, there's going to be a big blast of a workload," he said. "We know the commission staff is not going to grow in size. If we can address a piece of the workload now, we're OK with that."

Only two people at the hearing testified for the proposal.

Dewey Decker, a supervisor in Sanford, N.Y., which is near the creek, said the local economy was depressed and needed an economic boost from natural gas drilling.

Rick Williams, a Sanford resident, said landowners in the area "overwhelmingly support XTO's application."

"We're a dying town," he said. "We all welcome this as a positive step . . . to secure our future."

The area of the proposed withdrawal is about four hours north of Trenton, where the commission is based and where last week's meeting was held.

Many complained that the notice had gone out two weeks earlier and few could take the day off.

Ultimately, the commission decided not to vote on the matter because of the volume of public comment - more than three dozen testified. Before the meeting, the commission received 70 to 100 e-mails, as well as 100 printed comments, and more were handed in at the meeting.

By a unanimous vote, the commission decided to extend the public-comment period for 30 days and hold a hearing closer to the site.

The XTO spokesman said later that the company understood "the DRBC's position and interest in providing the public more time to review and comment on our permit request" and that it "looks forward to the DRBC resuming consideration of our water-withdrawal application."

While some at the hearing had brought up the Exxon Valdez oil spill and said the company had not responded adequately, the spokesman said that "XTO has a proud history of safe operations."

In July, the commission approved a Stone Energy request to withdraw 700,000 gallons a day from the West Branch Lackawaxen River in Mount Pleasant Township, Wayne County.

The commission conducted a public hearing for that request and another for a natural gas production well at the site, and received 1,700 comments.

Commission scientists are evaluating two more requests.

One is from F.E. Kamp Inc. for a withdrawal of up to 5.6 million gallons during a 30-day period from a well next to the West Branch of the Delaware River in Deposit, N.Y.

The other is from the town of Deposit, which wants to continue current water withdrawals but get permission to provide up to 200,000 gallons of water a day to the natural gas industry.

The applicant indicated it had one request from Newfield Appalachia PA, L.L.C. to buy up to 200,000 gallons per day for drilling and fracturing activities in Wayne County.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or Visit her blog at


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