Historic Fracking Ban Near Delaware River Cemented by 4-State Agency

Cutting off gas companies from $40 billion worth of natural gas reserves, the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware moved Thursday to safeguard a channel that provides drinking water for millions.

The Philadelphia side of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge spanning the Delaware River on Feb. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Regulators permanently banned fracking near the Delaware River on Thursday, holding that exploitation of regions like the Marcellus Shale, the nation’s largest gas field, poses too great a risk to other ecological resources.

The move came from the Delaware River Basin Commission, whose members, the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, are all Democrats representing states that surround the river.

Nearly 14,000-square-miles of land make up the Delaware River basin, more than half of which falls in Pennsylvania, including a 2,338-square-miles overlap with the massive rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale.

But the region for the last decade has been subject to what the Delaware River Basin Commission has termed a drilling moratorium.

Some six weeks before voting on today’s ban, the commission was hit with a federal complaint from two Pennsylvania lawmakers, the Pennsylvania Senate Republican Caucus and Damascus Township.

They say drilling along waterways would unlock $40 billion in natural gas reserves, and that the ban also hurts landowners whose leases with the gas companies were once estimated to represent more than 300 square miles of land. 

In Wayne County, according to the complaint, one group of landowners spent around $750,000 in legal fees to negotiate a lease estimated to bring in more than $187 million — only to see the deal terminated under the moratorium.

“By preventing the construction of unconventional wells within the basin,” the complaint states, “the commission is not only interfering with the reasonable investment-backed expectations of the landowners, but also directly and substantially impairing the growth of … [Pennsylvania’s] assets.”

Daniel Weaver, the president and executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, said that the commission has been ignoring the facts about natural gas development.

“Today’s action continues to show that pressure from a small number of activists and politicians can drown out science and a decade of successful natural gas drilling in other areas of the commonwealth, including the neighboring Susquehanna River Basin, which has seen thousands of wells drilled within its large geographical area and has consistently found no impact to water resources,” Weaver said this afternoon after the vote.

The practice of fracking, otherwise known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, involves the injection of large amounts of water, sand and chemicals underground to break up shale and release natural gas.

Those in support of the ban say it comes as too great a risk to a river that provides drinking water for millions across the quad-state area, including New York City and Philadelphia residents.

Maya van Rossum, CEO of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said on a call Thursday that her nonprofit alongside other organizations in the Delaware River Frack Ban Coalition have been pushing for the ban since 2008, when they first heard the term fracking.

“This was a major threat of harm to a river that is a critical drinking water supply for over 15 million people, and is a source of joy and recreation and family enjoyment, and economic vitality for our region,” van Rossum said.

But Weaver’s group PIOGA — a trade group that represents Pennsylvania’s independent crude oil and natural gas producers — said in a 2011 letter to the basin coalition that it has “provided the heat to [Pennsylvanians] homes” and the “gas to [their] stovetops” for decades while protecting the natural environment.

After passing the moratorium on a temporary basis in 2010, the coalition first signaled it would enact a permanent ban in 2017. It has been refining the rule since the period for public comment closed the following year.

Steve Tambini, the coalition’s executive director, noted that the group relied on “tens of thousands of comments, letters and petitions from a diverse cross section of the public from within the basin and beyond.”

Van Rossum said permanent rule is important as toxic wastewater or water withdrawals of fracking would present a major threat to groundwater as well as surface water in the Delaware River basin.

“Fracking would result in deforestation of huge parts of the landscape, it would spew air pollution,” she said. “The critical economy dependent on a beautiful, healthy Delaware River would be undermined all for an energy source that can and should be displaced by clean energy options.”

Other organizations that partnered with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network include the New Jersey Sierra Club, the Catskill Mountainkeeper and the League of Women Voters of Delaware. More than 100,000 members of the public have also campaigned for fracking in the area to be permanently banned.

As part of the vote, the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware governors unanimously proposed amendments that will change rules involving the importation of wastewater from outside the basin and exportation of basin waters. Draft regulations of these amendments will be issued by the end of September.

To van Rossum, the amendments mark where there’s still more work for environmental activists to do.

“[Today’s rule] bans fracking but it does allow the potential down the road for the DRBC to pass regulations that would allow the import of the toxic frack wastewater for treatment storage and disposal and for water withdrawals that could support fracking in neighboring watersheds,” she said. “We will certainly be battling on.”

The fifth member of the commission, a federal representative for the Biden administration from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, abstained from the vote as it had not been able to solicit input from a team of federal agencies and the White House in line with its procedures over the past month since the inauguration.

This did not mean the federal government did not support the move, according to a statement from the representative, Brigadier General Thomas Tickner.

“We respect the vote from each of the commissioners representing their respective states. I greatly appreciate the hard work and extensive coordination by DRBC staff,” Tickner said.

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