Fracking permanently banned in Pennsylvania’s Delaware River basin

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shale oil and gas drilling rig

The Delaware River Basin Commission approved a permanent ban on hydraulic fracturing Feb. 25, citing the need to protect public health and preserve the water that supplies more than 13 million people in four states. 

The commission approved a final rule banning high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the 13,539 square-mile Delaware River Basin that covers Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware.

Environmental groups are hailing the move as historic and necessary. Industry groups railed against the decision as “blatant overreach” and a violation of private property rights.

The agency put a temporary “de facto” moratorium on fracking in place more than a decade ago.

The ban primarily impacts the Marcellus Shale gas fields in northeastern Pennsylvania. Seven of the 17 Pennsylvania counties in the Delaware River watershed also sit over the Marcellus Shale formation that stretches diagonally across the state. There are nearly 13,000 unconventional wells drilled elsewhere in Pennsylvania. 

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and the governors of New York, New Jersey and Delaware who make up the interstate agency voted for the ban. The federal government representative on the commission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers abstained.

This marks the first time Pennsylvania has taken a step to curtail fracking within the state. New York banned fracking in 2015.

Wolf said in a statement that he’s “proud to join with other DRBC commissioners in preserving the water resources of this unique region for generations to come.” 

During the public comment period in 2018, the commission held six public hearings on the draft rules, heard from 223 people and received 8,679 written public submissions.

The commission also used several reports to inform its decision, including a 2015 New York Department of Environmental Conservation statement and a 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, along with current research.

Reaction

Environmental groups celebrated the ban. PennEnvironment executive director David Masur called it a watershed moment for protecting the country’s waters. 

“Fracking shouldn’t be allowed anywhere, much less near an iconic natural waterway like the Delaware River, which provides drinking water for so many,” he said in a statement.

Oil and gas industry and business groups – like the American Petroleum Institute Pennsylvania, Marcellus Shale Coalition and Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry – panned the move as political in nature.

“This vote defies common sense, sound science, and is a grave blow to constitutionally protected private property rights,” said Marcellus Shale Coalition president David Callahan, in a statement.

He pointed to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission’s continuous water quality monitoring program that showed no discernible impact on water quality from shale gas development.

Challenges to come

The decision comes amid legal challenges from local landowners and Republican lawmakers. 

A court date is set for October to hear a case brought by a group of Wayne County landowners. They’re alleging the commission doesn’t have jurisdiction over gas drilling, according to reporting by the Philadelphia Inquirer

A separate action filed last month by Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers and Damascus Township alleges the moratorium illegally takes the state legislators’ authority to govern natural resources. 

Shale gas development ground to a halt in 2010 when the temporary moratorium went into effect. 

The commission also opted to decide later whether to allow water to be gathered from the Delaware River basin to be used in drilling and to allow treated fracking wastewater to be dumped in the basin.

Those provisions were removed from the final rule. The commission voted to start a new process to create rules on those issues later in the year.

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