DRBC posts new rules to allow gas drilling in region

Posted: November 09, 2011

Long-awaited revisions to the Delaware River Basin Commission's proposed rules that would govern natural-gas development in the watershed were released Tuesday.

The highly technical document of 100-plus pages would permit only 300 wells to be drilled until a reassessment is done after 18 months. The rules also call for more water monitoring, more water-use restrictions, and more money to be set aside for remediation.

Observers on all sides said the rules were too complicated to assess quickly. A vote is expected at a Nov. 21 special meeting, and the rules, if passed, would become effective 60 days later. After that, drilling companies could begin the application process that would lead to the first production wells in the Delaware River basin.

Soon after the regulations were posted around noon Tuesday, environmental groups cried foul because the commission is not allowing a public comment period on the revisions. They also criticized the commission for not conducting an environmental impact study before coming up with the regulations.

An industry representative said she was encouraged that the commission was moving ahead but was concerned about some requirements.

"We appreciate DRBC's acknowledgment that state regulators should continue to closely oversee well construction and operation activities in an effort to avoid unnecessary duplication," said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

"We do, however, have concerns given what we don't know about these proposed regulations," she said. The rules allow for large lease holdings to be developed under broad gas development plans. But Klaber said it was unclear what those plans would require. Also, "it remains unclear how timely permits may be processed."

Jeffrey Featherstone, a professor of community and regional planning at Temple University and a former deputy executive director at the commission, said, "It's a complicated document. I'd be shocked if there weren't lawsuits as soon as the commission takes action."

The new financial rules for remediation and fees for consuming water are "pretty big numbers," he said. "There's some money at stake here."

The DRBC "is moving into new territory," Featherstone said. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission, for example, regulates only water withdrawals. But the commission's compact calls for it to review all projects having a substantial impact on the water resources of the basin, including water quality.

The commission has a moratorium on drilling in the watershed - which provides drinking water for 15 million people, including Philadelphia and some suburbs - until regulations are adopted.

In the bull's-eye is Northeastern Pennsylvania's Wayne County, where thousands of leases have been signed with drilling firms but no wells are being drilled.

Elsewhere in the state, 4,168 wells were drilled as of Oct. 28, state records show.

The commission is an interstate agency formed by a federal compact that governs water use and water quality in the basin. Members are the four states in the basin - Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York - plus the U.S. government.

Regulations were proposed in December, and a public comment period ended April 15, with the commission receiving about 69,000 submissions. About 400 people testified in public hearings.

Initially, the commission intended to make revisions and act on them at its September meeting. The New Jersey representative threatened to withhold funds if it did not.

But the staff couldn't finish in time. A special hearing was announced for October, then delayed until Nov. 21.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey - whose governors both back natural-gas extraction - have pushed for the commission to proceed.

On Tuesday, Larry Ragonese, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said, "We're glad to see that they incorporated almost all of New Jersey's recommendations in the draft proposal," such as the reassessment period. "But we are still looking at the entire package, and we will assess it to determine our vote."

Delaware, with no Marcellus Shale under its land, has been more cautious. New York, with a moratorium in place until its own environmental impact study is done, wants to put on the brakes.

In May, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman filed suit, contending that the commission should have completed a cumulative environmental impact study before creating regulations.

On Tuesday, Schneiderman said, "Even though modified, these regulations still lack the benefit of a full environmental impact study, which is required by law and dictated by common sense. Without it, the federal government does not have a complete understanding of the health and safety risks fracking poses."

A consortium of environmental groups, including the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, filed a similar suit a month after New York's.

Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum said the new changes, which reduce buffer space around wells, were substantive enough to warrant public comment.

The bottom line is that "they are opening the Delaware River watershed up to drilling," van Rossum said. She said Gov. Corbett may have found the regulations politically unpalatable, "but he knows that once you open that door, you can't close it down the road."

DRBC's Proposed Revisions

Revisions to the Delaware River Basin Commission's proposed natural-gas development regulations include:

An 18-month assessment period.

Water-use authorizations would be limited to 300 wells, after which no more would be allowed until the commissioners gave the go-ahead at a public meeting.

Groundwater must be sampled before projects begin and annually afterward.

The commission will sample surface water before and after well-pad construction and each well stimulation.

A water-use plan must be approved before water from any source - inside or outside the basin - can be used for natural-gas development activities.

Financial assurance has been changed from an overall $125,000 per well to three separate categories and limits, ranging from $25,000 per well for capping and closure to $5 million per well for accidental spills and releases.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at philly.com/greenspace.

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