PHILADELPHIA — Debate over setting conditions to allow natural gas drilling in the Delaware River basin is pitting landowners in Northeastern Pennsylvania who want to profit from the commonwealth’s drilling boom against people downstream who are concerned about the possible environmental impact
The Delaware River Basin Commission, a New Jersey-Pennsylvania agency that oversees withdrawals and water quality in the watershed drained by the 330-mile-long river, proposed regulations in December that would open wide-scale drilling for the first time but with generally stricter rules than in the rest of Pennsylvania. The agency is taking public comments until the middle of the month.
The issue has divided landowners seeking to take advantage of the boom and those concerned about the environment.
Louis Matoushek, for one, is upset that the panel halted production on his land in Wayne County three years ago after a company had already drilled a well.
“They changed the rules in the middle of the game,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
But in Philadelphia about 150 miles downstream, Christopher Crockett, who is in charge of planning for the city’s water department, fears the effect on the drinking water for millions of people in Philadelphia and its suburbs.
“We want to make sure we have the science before the policy,” he said.
Before the commission acted, thousands of acres were leased and seven wells drilled in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but none were fracked — a process of injecting millions of gallons of water into the ground to free the gas.
Environmental advocates had urged the commission to wait for a study to assess the impacts, as New York is doing. The industry, however, urged action, citing the region’s need for an economic boost and the national market for clean-burning, domestic energy.
The commission says the shale areas of the basin, which includes portions of New York, could have 15,000 to 18,000 wells at some point, built on about 2,000 well pads encompassing up to 12,000 acres, plus more land for pipelines and infrastructure.
But 15 million people from Philadelphia to New York use the water, and some pristine areas of the river north of Trenton have been federally designated for extra oversight.
Pennsylvania, which has seen landowners enriched and businesses profit from the portion of the massive Marcellus Shale underneath the commonwealth, is pressing ahead. But Delaware and New Jersey, with no shale and therefore less to gain, have been cautious.
“These are decisions that are going to affect multiple generations,” said Delaware’s Collin O’Mara, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. “It’s better to get it right than to do it fast.”
John Plonski, assistant New Jersey commissioner for water resources and the state’s commissioner on the interstate panel, said New Jersey “has always taken the position that our primary responsibility is to protect the integrity of the Delaware River.”