Inquirer Editorial: No rush to drill near the Delaware

Barbara Arrindell (left) and Pat Carullo are cofounders of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, a group that is opposed to gas drilling in the Upper Delaware River basin. They were in Lackawaxen, Pa.
Barbara Arrindell (left) and Pat Carullo are cofounders of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, a group that is opposed to gas drilling in the Upper Delaware River basin. They were in Lackawaxen, Pa. (HAROLD BRUBAKER / Inquirer Staff)
Posted: July 24, 2013

For most of the five million yearly visitors to the upper Delaware River, the region's natural splendors offer an excellent setting to slow their normally hectic pace. That's enough reason to ease the political pressure to open the region to natural-gas drilling, but there's more.

Interstate regulators responsible for safeguarding drinking water for more than 15 million people must resist being stampeded into lifting the three-year-old moratorium on drilling in the Delaware watershed.

The growing frustration of Gov. Corbett, energy-industry officials, and Northeastern Pennsylvania landowners banking on drilling royalties is understandable. Yet it's reasonable for the Delaware River Basin Commission - the multistate agency charged with oversight of the watershed - to take all the time it needs to study the potential environmental risks of natural-gas extraction, which would involve pumping vast quantities of water, sand, and chemicals into miles-deep wells.

Corbett recently accused the commission of delaying tactics that amount to a de facto drilling ban. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) contended that the continued moratorium is "unacceptable and tremendously unfair" to the region. And Wayne County officials talked of "irreparable economic harm."

Meanwhile, the commission, which includes representatives of four states and the federal government, heard from environmentalists who feel just as strongly that there should be no rush to judgment on drilling. Joining them in urging caution was no less an authority than Harrisburg's former chief environmental watchdog, John Hanger, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to unseat Corbett next year. Taking into account Hanger's political ambition, he still made a compelling case that the state's regulatory efforts have not been adequate in the face of a doubling of drilling activity over the last two years.

On top of that has come a clear signal to put on the brakes from a somewhat unlikely source: the gas industry itself. The recent announcement that two major companies digging wells in the region are pulling out of some leases - due to soft prices for gas and other market issues - means there's no need for the commission to rush to judgment to appease Corbett and others who want to speed up its analysis.

As a basin commission spokesman noted recently, the agency's plans to craft regulatory safeguards for drilling in the watershed require parsing "extremely complex" scientific and policy issues. And there are high stakes for a large region if drilling and hydraulic fracturing are allowed to go ahead.

What happens next? Well, the continued delays give the Corbett administration time to address what critics see as inadequate protection of public health in its oversight of natural-gas drilling. Also, the governor and state lawmakers could revisit the state's drilling fees, which are among the nation's most favorable to the industry. Under Republican control in Harrisburg, gas-drilling revenues have been restricted mostly to host communities, when the entire state could benefit from more robust drilling fees.

Despite the retreat of drillers eyeing more lucrative areas, Pennsylvania's gas boom is far from over. New wells are still being drilled. It's not too late to recalibrate the state's oversight of the industry and its share of the wealth. And officials must proceed with caution in considering drilling near the swift currents of the Delaware.

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