$1 million for gas drilling study clears hurdle

Last week, when hundreds of people --both pro and con natural gas drilling in the Delaware River watershed -- crammed a meeting of the Delaware River Basin Commission, executive director Carol Collier announced that federal funding for a study that would assess the cumulative impacts of drilling in the basin had not yet come through.

She said that portions of the study had begun anyway. 

Today, congressmen from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania jointly announced that $1 million to study water withdrawals in the basin had been approved by the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.  It still needs further approval, said Zach Goldberg, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J. But, he said, "this is an important first step." If the panel had not approved the appropriation, it would have been all but impossible to include it in later funding measures.

Opponents of drilling have long asked for such a study, contending that the commission cannot  make informed decisions about water withdrawals and other matters related to drilling until it knows the potential cumulative impacts. 

Getting the natural gas from the ground involves drilling a well and injecting it with millions of gallons of water and other chemical additives to fracture -- or "frack" -- the geologic formations of the Marcellus shale. Some of the water stays in the ground. But the rest returns to the surface bearing salts and other contaminants from the ancient rock. It must be treated before being released into waterways.

The industry has maintained that drilling can be done safely and without harm to the land and waterways. But numerous spills and other accidents have occurred. Opponents contend that the sheer number of wells anticipated  would increase the impervious surface of a watershed and lead to erosion and other harmful effects on the waterways.

The commission, a four-state agency formed by a federal compact, regulates water withdrawals and releases in the Delaware River watershed.  It has, in effect, put a moratorium on all natural gas drilling in the watershed until it adopts regulations that specifically address the activity.  Pennsylvania is in the process of adopting some new regulations, but has continued to issue permits for drilling.

At the commission meeting last week, Collier said that the regulations had been developed and were under review. She said she anticipated that the commission would formally propose them and put them out for public comment sometime this fall. They could be in place by the end of the year, she said.