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Two Big Decisions Loom on the Fate of Drinking Water for 15 Million People Living Near the Marcellus Shale

Decisions about whether to allow fracking in NY, PA, NJ and DE may be decided in just a few weeks.

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The Big Decision

The Delaware River Basin Commission received more than 69,000 comments from the public after its draft regulations were released last December. When it extended the comment period to April 15, the Marcellus Shale Coalition complained that it would "undermine dialogue" by "detracting from the voices of the key stakeholders... landowners, residents of the Basin, and our member companies who are investing capital and creating jobs in the region."

The Hess company, a member of the coalition, objected to proposed restrictions on drilling within flood-hazard zones, on steep hills, or within 500 feet of water sources, saying they would affect 60 percent of the land the company has leased in the area. It urged more flexible, case-by-case rules.

Tracy Carluccio of Delaware Riverkeeper calls the draft regulations "totally inadequate" to protect the watershed. The commission has not done either a comparative environmental analysis of fracking or a cumulative-impact study, she says.

"They haven't done the analysis to see if it could be done safely," she says-and given the record of accidents in Pennsylvania, she adds, it can't be done safely. "They are now putting in place the ruination of our aquifers."

DRBC spokesperson Clarke Rupert responds that the commission's work "was not created in an information vacuum." It looked closely at how other areas of the country were handling fracking, he adds, and it is not required by federal law to do an environmental-impact statement.

States can enact stronger regulations than the ones the commission creates, Rupert says. The commission can also establish regulations stronger than state laws, but they would apply only to the areas within the Delaware watershed. In Pennsylvania, that would mean the counties along the river, not the western three-fourths of the state.

Activists suspect the commission has agreed not to propose regulations that would be stronger than those of any of the four states in the area. "They are opting out of anything stricter," says Carluccio.

In May, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued the federal government, demanding that it undertake a full environmental review before it allows gas drilling in the Delaware watershed. On Oct. 13, the Philadelphia City Council voted to join the suit.

Three of the five members' votes are needed for the commission to approve regulations. Pennsylvania is considered a sure yes, as Gov. Tom Corbett is a strong supporter of fracking. He considers it a panacea for the state's economy, and he received more than $1 million from oil and gas interests in his 2010 campaign. In April, after he proposed slashing the state's higher education budget by half, he suggested that state colleges could offset the cuts by putting well pads on campus.

The other members' votes are in play, activists say. In New Jersey, the state legislature recently passed a bill to ban fracking, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it. Delaware, which is at the mouth of the river, might be more likely to vote no. Andrew Cuomo may want fracking in New York, but may also want to get his own state's regulations through first. Environmentalists have been urging the Obama administration to vote no.

Ultimately, says William Kappel, the question is of "relative risk." He's worked on drilling rigs, and "accidents do occur."

All industrial processes cause some environmental degradation; it's the price we pay for living at a standard above hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. Yet there is only so much damage the Earth can take. Is the risk that fracking poses to our drinking water worth the amount of energy it creates and the money it provides?  

 
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