ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The agency that oversees water quality and quantity in the four-state Delaware River basin issued proposed regulations Thursday for the natural gas drilling industry, launching what is certain to be a heated debate pitting energy companies and property owners who have signed lucrative leases against environmentalists, sporting groups and residents worried about their drinking water supplies.
The Delaware River Basin Commission published the long-awaited regulations on its website. They govern a range of drilling activities, including water withdrawals, well pad siting and wastewater disposal, and require drilling companies to post a bond of $125,000 per well to cover the plugging and restoration of abandoned wells and the remediation of any pollution.
The commission — a powerful federal-interstate compact agency that monitors water supplies for 15 million people, including half the population of New York City — has declared a moratorium on Marcellus Shale drilling projects in the Delaware River basin until the rulemaking process is complete.
The proposed regulations are meant to protect “an incredible regional resource for the mid-Atlantic area,” said Carol Collier, the DRBC’s executive director.
The panel has jurisdiction because the drilling process will require the withdrawal of huge amounts of water from the watershed’s streams and rivers. The commission also cites the potential for groundwater and surface water contamination.
Energy companies have leased thousands of acres of land in the Delaware River basin, hoping to tap vast stores of gas in a sprawling rock formation — the Marcellus Shale — that experts believe could become the nation’s most productive gas field.
Farmers and other landowners say drilling will bring jobs and prosperity, chafing at what they see as unwarranted regulatory foot-dragging by the basin commission.
Drilling opponents, meanwhile, contend that large-scale gas exploration so close to crucial waterways and renowned fisheries invites catastrophe. They wanted the agency to complete a proposed cumulative impact study before issuing the draft rules.
“It’s a grave mistake for the DRBC to rush forward with half-baked regulations before the needed scientific analysis is done through a cumulative impact analysis,” Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, said in a statement ahead of the rules’ publication.
In New York state, where lawmakers recently extended a temporary ban to allow state regulators to issue new guidelines for shale gas extraction, departing Gov. David Patterson wrote to Collier on Monday to ask that DRBC “halt its efforts to enact regulations” on shale drilling. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned Collier last month against “a rush to regulate and drill.”
The impact study sought by environmental groups awaits funding. In the meantime, Collier said, the commission felt it was important to begin writing the rules “so the public can see the direction the DRBC is proposing” and be able to “comment specifically about what the concerns are and where the gaps may be.”
Thursday’s publication began a 90-day comment period. Three public hearings on the draft regulations are planned. Dates and locations have yet to be finalized.
Industry officials reacted cautiously to the proposed rules. Kathryn Z. Klaber, president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the industry is committed to working with the DRBC on regulations aimed at “safely leveraging” the valuable stores of natural gas.
But she added that drillers and the public “should expect any new DRBC regulations to be compatible with state regulations and avoid duplicative or conflicting requirements.”
The Marcellus Shale is a rock formation more than a mile beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio, including about 36 percent of the Delaware River basin. Drilling is in full swing elsewhere in Pennsylvania. Recent technological advances have allowed drillers to reach gas reserves in the Marcellus and other shales in the U.S. for the first time.
Energy companies combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial technique that injects vast amounts of water, along with sand and toxic chemicals, underground to break up the shale and release the gas. The Environmental Protection Agency is planning a study of the environmental and health consequences of fracking.
Well fracturing — and other elements of well design, construction and operation — would remain largely the purview of Pennsylvania and New York state regulators under the draft DRBC rules, which focus instead on well siting, water withdrawal and wastewater disposal.
Drillers meeting certain criteria would go through a streamlined approval process — an industry carrot meant to be an incentive for “good environmental practice,” Collier said.
Energy companies with more than 3,200 acres under lease, or those that plan to install more than five well pads in the basin, would also have to submit a detailed master plan with “broad scale, rather than limited site-by-site decision making.” The goal: to minimize the driller’s cumulative impact on waterways.
Carluccio, of the riverkeeper group, questioned why smaller drillers would escape the more intensive planning requirement.
“I don’t think you can assume you won’t have piecemeal development” with a patchwork of smaller leaseholds, “because that is how it’s playing out in some areas,” she said. “It’s a huge loophole that allows a tremendous amount of natural gas development to escape comprehensive review.”
Collier disputed that, noting smaller drillers would have to adhere to other DRBC regulations as well as state laws.
Notably, the basin commission invoked the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in its proposed rules for the treatment of fracking wastewater. Congress exempted fracking from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005, leaving regulations to individual states.