River-basin agency postpones action on proposed gas-drilling rules

The Delaware River Basin Commission, which has not allowed natural-gas drilling in eastern Pennsylvania counties within the basin, announced Tuesday that it would not act on its proposed drilling regulations at its Sept. 21 meeting, as one commission member had demanded.

Instead, it has scheduled a two-hour meeting to "consider adoption" of the regulations on Oct. 21. That meeting will not include a hearing, commission Executive Director Carol R. Collier said in a news release.

The industry responded that it remained eager to work with the commission. An environmental advocate said the meeting would be too short for commission members to explain their decision.

The announcement came on the eve of a two-day Marcellus Shale industry conference in Pennsylvania. Inside the Convention Center, industry executives, regulators, environmental advocates, and two former Pennsylvania governors and the current one will discuss the future of natural gas. Outside, protesters have planned a rally Wednesday and a separate anti-fracking conference Thursday.

The commission has been the focus of intense scrutiny and pressure.

Natural-gas advocates have pushed for approval of regulations that would allow drilling to proceed. Several counties in Northeastern Pennsylvania are believed to have large natural-gas reserves, and thousands of leases have been filed. More than 3,800 Marcellus Shale wells have been drilled elsewhere in Pennsylvania, state records show.

Opponents contend that the commission should not institute regulations until an environmental-impact study is done. The upper river and many tributaries are under special protections because of their high water quality. The Delaware provides drinking water for 15 million people, including those in Philadelphia and some suburbs.

Regulations were proposed in December. Six hearings were held in February, during which nearly 400 people testified. Written comments were accepted until April 15, and the commission got 69,000 submissions.

"When you have a set of draft regulations like this and you receive all these submissions, it's quite an in-depth process," DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert said. "But it's not a process that can continue indefinitely." So while the commission thought that revisions wouldn't be ready for the September meeting, late October was doable.

New Jersey had pressed for the commission to move forward, and its representative, John Plonski of the state Department of Environmental Protection, had threatened to withhold the state's share of DRBC funding if a vote did not occur in September.

However, DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said officials believed the DRBC was "making a good-faith effort to create a really good set of rules, and that's most important to us."

Other commission members are Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York - all of which have land within the basin - and the federal government, represented by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, said a two-hour meeting was ridiculous given the extensive public comment.

"It indicates there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes deal-making," she said, adding, "We are not going to see a truly honest, earnest, vibrant, and open discussion."

Pennsylvania DEP Secretary Michael Krancer said, "We and everybody else fully expect the DRBC will be ready to take action in October."

Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said, "We are eager to continue working with DRBC as this important process moves forward."


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at philly.com/greenspace.