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Process for Water Use Approval in Marcellus Streamlined

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) last Thursday approved regulatory changes that streamline its review of producer applications for natural gas wells in the Marcellus Shale in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New York, while further protecting the basin's water resources.

All requests for consumptive water use by the natural gas industry will now be handled through SRBC's simplified approval-by-rule process, commonly known as a general permit. The difference is that SRBC approval will take three to four weeks under the approval-by-rule process, compared to the three months or more under the existing process, said Susan Obleski, a spokeswoman for the Harrisburg, PA-based SRBC, an independent interstate compact agency that regulates development in parts of the Marcellus Shale region. This and other changes will go into effect Jan. 1.

To enable the change, the SRBC said it has expanded the sources of water that applicants can consider for their consumptive water use, including public water supplies, discharges from wastewater treatment facilities and other reclaimed waters, and withdrawals from other sources approved separately by the SRBC.

Water is considered consumptively used when it is withdrawn from the Susquehanna River Basin but not returned to the basin. Drilling wells for gas development in the Marcellus Shale and other formations in the Susquehanna basin involves larges volumes of water being injected underground, making it not reasonably available for future use.

Other key changes in the SRBC's regulations include:

"The commission acted quickly and decisively to address the unanticipated and pressing demand for water in 2008 from the natural gas industry," said SRBC Executive Director Paul Swartz. "These regulatory amendments, along with other actions we had already taken, allow us to respond in an orderly fashion as we fulfill our dual mission to protect the basin's vital water resources and support economic development opportunities.

"The commission's decision this summer to regulate all quantities of water withdrawals and uses by the natural gas industry has had multiple benefits. It not only enhanced water resource protection, we believe it actually bolstered industry compliance by eliminating any uncertainties as to what amount of water would be regulated in the Susquehanna Basin."

Effective Oct. 15, the commission began requiring gas producers to seek prior approval from the SRBC, no matter the amount of water consumed in the exploration and production of shale gas in the region (see NGI, Sept. 1). This was the first time in the SRBC's 37-year history that it imposed a prior-approval requirement on a class of projects.

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