Drilling for gas along the Delaware River remains in limbo

    The Marcellus Shale natural gas formation stretches across about two-thirds of Pennsylvania, from the southwest corner of Washington County to the northeast corner of Wayne county. But drills have yet to tap the gas that lies beneath Wayne and Pike counties. A moratorium is in place until the regulatory agency that oversees drilling in areas near the Delaware river implements new drilling rules. That vote was supposed to happen today in Trenton but was cancelled.

    Drive up through small towns along the Delaware river, and you’ll see yellow lawn signs that read “Don’t Drill the Delaware.” These are towns that don’t lie above any natural gas deposits. But the opposition to gas drilling among residents who live downstream is growing.

    “We hear a great debate over this right of the Constitution and that right of the Constitution, but as far as I’m concerned the number one right is the right to live, and in order to live you need air to breath, and you need water to drink,” said John Scorsone, who spoke recently at an anti-drilling rally in Philadelphia.

    Scorsone is one of hundreds from the Philadelphia area who planned to attend the much larger rally protesting this week’s scheduled Delaware River Basin Commission meeting in Trenton. The five-member Commission, or DRBC, was created in 1961 to manage the river’s water quality.

    New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government all have a seat on the commission. All four states use the Delaware River as a source of drinking water. This is the first time it has had to make decisions about energy extraction.

    “Fifteen million people get their water from the Delaware River,” said Tracy Carluccio, with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “It’s one of the largest watershed water supplies in the nation. There’s no other place to get this water.”

    The Delaware Riverkeeper Network is one of the most vocal and active environmental groups seeking to halt drilling along the Delaware river.

    “Philadelphia is downstream from where this fracking is going on. Philadelphia is also in the pathway of pipelines and compressor stations and liquefied natural gas stations may pop up in the bay. So Philadelphia is in the crosshairs here,” she said.

    Fracking uses a combination of pressurized water, sand and chemicals to “fracture” the shale rock and release the gas. The DRBC, has spent the last several years drawing up new regulations, taking public comment and revising their proposal. But Carluccio says the rules now on the table, are not stringent enough to protect the water. Environmentalists like her want the commission to conduct an environmental impact study before drawing up new gas drilling rules. So they planned a large demonstration outside the scheduled meeting, renting buses to take hundreds of people from Philadelphia to Trenton.

    But not everyone closely watching the actions of the DRBC agrees with Carluccio. About 140 miles north of Philadelphia, in Wayne county, property owners like Curt Coccodrilli, want the drilling moratorium lifted.

    “What we’re looking at right now is literally the dividing line, what I call the economic iron curtain, between the Delaware River Basin and the Susquehanna River Basin,” said Coccodrilli.

    The Susquehanna River Basin has a similar commission, but it only oversees water withdrawals, not water quality. The multi-state Delaware River Basin Commission has regulatory authority over the water that runs through the bulk of Coccodrilli’s land.

    The DRBC planned to vote on its new gas drilling rules this week, a simple majority of three yes votes by commissioners would have lifted the drilling moratorium in Wayne and Pike counties. That would mean an additional income of about $20,000 dollars a year for Coccodrilli. He says gas drilling has helped bring prosperity to other parts of the state.

    “But over here it’s depression and recession in the county,” he said. “So what do you do? Do I listen to the environmental illuminati as they want to heap their almighty rules from above on us? I mean they treat this area as their own state park.”

    In fact Coccodrilli and the members of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance do consider themselves environmental stewards. For them, natural gas provides an alternative to America’s addiction to foreign oil, which they say led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They say natural gas is also an alternative to coal-fired power plants, which create acid rain. Both of Coccodrilli’s grandfathers worked in the coal mines and died of black lung.

    “If you value American independence away from foreign strife, and you want a cheap, clean fuel source, then I think you’re foolish not to extract in the Delaware River Basin.”

    Coccodrilli planned to make the two-and-a-half hour drive to Monday’s meeting in Trenton, and celebrate a “yes” vote on the new drilling rules, and a lifting of the moratorium. But a lack of consensus sent the DRBC into turmoil, and on Friday the commission cancelled Monday’s meeting.

    For now, no new meeting is scheduled, and the moratorium on drilling continues. Activists like Tracy Carluccio from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network still plan to march in Trenton and celebrate a victory.

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