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.