Drilling deadlock in the Delaware watershed pleases some officials


    Drilling for natural gas has been on hold in the Delaware River watershed for more than four years. The group that manages it, the Delaware River Basin Commission, has not reached a consensus on how to regulate it.

    That’s making some people very happy, while others like dairy farmer Brian Smith say they are watching their opportunity slipping away.

    Dairy farming doesn’t bring in the money it used to in Wayne County, Pennsylvania. So to make ends meet, Smith is also a school bus driver and a county commissioner. A few years ago, he leased his land in Damascus Township to an energy company looking to tap into deposits of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale below his farm.

    Smith said he wanted some financial security for his family of eight. “You start thinking as you turn 50 years old, if something happens to me, how are these kids gonna pay $300,000 to pay off the debt that’s on this farm?”

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    But because of the ongoing stalemate at the five-member Delaware River Basin Commission, there hasn’t been any natural gas drilling on his land. The DRBC came close to voting on draft regulations in late November 2011, but the meeting was postponed indefinitely to give the commissioners more time.

    For the last two years, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has been the commission’s only vocal “yes” vote. The other commissioners – the governors of New Jersey, New York and Delaware, plus a federal representative from the Army Corps of Engineers – haven’t taken a final stand.

    Rural vs. urban influence

    Smith blamed the delay on the influence of people living more than one hundred miles away in Philadelphia and New York City.

    “It’s a popular side of the argument to say we want clean water,” Smith said. “It’s an unpopular side of the argument to say we also need to have energy and we also need to move forward with some production of natural gas.”

    But environmentalists across the region have continued lobbying to keep the moratorium on drilling in the Delaware watershed.

    “It’s helped create a national movement,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. “It’s wakened people in two of the most activist regions in the country.”

    The Delaware River and its tributaries provide fresh drinking water for about 15 million people in the four states that make up the watershed. Environmentalists such as Tittel worry the heavy industrial activity that comes with natural gas development will ruin the water supply. So he always has his finger to the wind.

    “Our biggest hope will be that Pennsylvania gets a new governor and we can hold things out until that new governor’s in office and we can buy some time to either keep the moratorium going or get regulations that will be strict enough to make sure that if fracking happens, that it’s not going to have the devastating impacts,” Tittel said.

    The role of the White House

    While it may not be to Corbett’s advantage to wait, it could benefit his fellow commissioners.

    Peter Kostmayer has been around the politics of water for a long time. He now works as a CEO for a nonprofit in New York City, but was Bucks County’s democratic congressman for seven terms. A former EPA administrator, he was also part of the fight in the 1970s to include the Delaware in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

    If the governors split along party lines – two Republicans and two Democrats – Kostmayer said the Obama administration may have to break the tie.

    So far, Obama has seemed reluctant to weigh in. The President supports natural gas development to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, but he has also needed the political support of environmentalists who want to limit use of fossil fuels.

    “He may say look, I know environmentalists are opposed to this, but it’s an important piece of our alternative energy project and if we’re going to reduce the amount of oil we’re bringing into this country, we’ve got to find some alternatives. We can’t say no to everything,” Kostmayer said.

    In the meantime, Pennsylvania is advocating for natural gas development. Governor Corbett’s Energy Executive, Patrick Henderson, notes Pennsylvania is the only state on the commission to have experience with active drilling.

    “There’s a very compelling argument to make that even though there was a comfort level which we thought was there in late 2011, we’ve again done nothing but strengthen environmental standards here in Pennsylvania,” Henderson told StateImpact Pennsylvania in a recent interview.

    Holding out for ‘the gold standard’

    Not everyone is convinced. If drilling gets approved in the Delaware watershed, the first rigs will most likely be in Pennsylvania. So the other states need to be confident that drilling won’t compromise water quality for their residents.

    The commissioners are still hashing out which regulatory tasks will be handled by the DRBC, and which by the states. For example, the state Department of Environmental Protection has more experience regulating well casings. But will other states be comfortable with the way Pennsylvania handles that?

    As the debate continues, Pennsylvania is getting impatient. Over the summer, U.S. Senator Pat Toomey and Governor Corbett vented frustration in letters to the DRBC. A group of landowners in Wayne County have threatened to sue the commission over the delay.

    Delaware Secretary of Environment and Energy Collin O’Mara told StateImpact Pennsylvania it’s not a political standoff.

    “Our belief is that there are best practices,” O’Mara said. “You can really reduce the risks and potential impacts and still have access to a lower cost and lower emission source of energy.”

    O’Mara insists the commissioners just want to get it right.

    “There is an opportunity for us to have a consensus that could really become the gold standard for the country,” O’Mara said.

    Since it was founded in 1961, the commission’s goal has been to get the four states to see the big picture. DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert said watersheds don’t have political boundaries.

    “With the watershed concept, everything is connected, so actions that take place in the upper watershed can have an impact on those who live downstream,” Rupert said.

    Former Congressman Peter Kostmayer agrees with that to a point.

    “But where he’s wrong is politics is always here,” Kostmayer said. “Politics is a part of this process and there’s no point in trying to take it out. You have to make it work for you.”

    The cost of indecision

    If the DRBC does approve rules for natural gas drilling in the Delaware River watershed, that doesn’t mean the other three states will be forced to allow it within their borders. But the draft DRBC rules would impose tighter regulations than in other parts of Pennsylvania where drilling is going on.

    Dairy farmer Brian Smith thinks Wayne County may have already missed out on the natural gas boom.

    “If and I hope they do have a positive vote to move forward with regulations that would allow it here, I don’t think they’re gonna move right in and say we’ll start drilling tomorrow,” Smith said.

    That’s why Pennsylvania wants the DRBC to get a move on and why others are happy to let the stalemate linger.

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