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States Divided Over Controversial DRBC Plan; Vote Postponed Indefinitely

A proposal before the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to revise its water quality regulations and open the basin to Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling suffered a serious setback after Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said Thursday his state would vote against the plan.

Markell's announcement was immediately followed by a DRBC statement on Friday that a meeting scheduled for Monday to vote on the proposal was being postponed indefinitely.

According to sources contacted Friday by NGI's Shale Daily, New York would have joined Delaware in opposition to the DRBC's proposal had the vote taken place on Monday, but Pennsylvania would have voted for it. New Jersey officials indicated the Garden State was still on the fence over the issue.

"The single most important issue for a downstream state like Delaware is whether [natural gas wells in the basin] are being drilled, constructed and operated in a manner that adequately protects our public and private water supplies," Markell said. "Once hydrofracturing begins in the basin, the proverbial 'faucet' cannot be turned off, with any damage to our freshwater supplies likely requiring generations of effort to clean up. In this case it is more important to get it right than to be fast."

But Markell added that Delaware wasn't completely ruling out natural gas drilling in the basin.

"This does not mean that Delaware will refuse to move forward under any circumstances," Markell said. "In fact, I agree with [Pennsylvania] Gov. [Tom] Corbett that the decision-makers at all levels of government with respect to hydrofracturing should be guided by science, not emotion or desire for profit...[But] this commission is simply not able to properly evaluate these regulations based on the science at this time."

The DRBC is led by the governors of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' North Atlantic division is also a commission member. DRBC spokeswoman Katherine O'Hara told NGI's Shale Daily a simple majority would be needed for the proposal to pass.

Delaware now joins New York in opposition to the DRBC's proposal. Media reports quoted New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens as being opposed to the plan because he didn't want shale gas drilling in New York subject to two different sets of regulation.

"We likely would have voted 'no' at Monday's meeting," DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis told NGI's Shale Daily on Friday.

In a separate statement Friday, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman -- who has sued the federal government over the DRBC's proposal (see Shale Daily, June 1) -- commended Markell's position on the issue. "His position echoes my long-standing position: the federal government must follow both common sense and the law, and conduct a full study of fracking in the basin before proceeding with regulations," Schneiderman said.

Corbett said Friday he was disappointed Monday's meeting was postponed and that Pennsylvania would have voted for the DRBC proposal.

"Pennsylvania is ready to move forward now," Corbett said. "Today's delay [was] driven more by politics than sound science [and] is a decision to put off the creation of much-needed jobs, to put off securing our energy independence and to infringe upon the property rights of thousands of Pennsylvanians."

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) spokesman Larry Ragonese told NGI's Shale Daily the department had not seen the final version of the DRBC proposal but added that the DRBC had incorporated "virtually all" of the NJDEP's recommendations into the commission's draft version (see Shale Daily, July 19; April 20).

"Until we actually see the final product, I can't say whether we would vote for it or against it," Ragonese said Friday. "There's a lot in there that we like, but if other states have issues and want to make the rules even better and improve it, we are more than willing to let them."

The DRBC's O'Hara said no decision had been made yet on when or where Monday's meeting -- which was to take place at the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton, NJ -- would be rescheduled.

"We knew a lot of people were interested in the meeting, which is why we decided to hold it at a larger venue," O'Hara said. "We will definitely either be sticking with the same place in Trenton or going elsewhere that would be able to accommodate a large crowd.

The DRBC had said Monday's meeting was postponed "to allow additional time for review by the five commission members." When asked if Markell's announcement was the primary reason for the meeting's postponement, O'Hara said, "There are some open issues that the commissioners have to work through."

The final version of the DRBC's proposal was released on Nov. 1, nearly one year after it was first proposed (see Shale Daily, Nov. 9; Dec. 10, 2010). If adopted, the rulemaking would "constitute a joint exercise of the sovereign authority of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and the federal government" under the Delaware River Basin Compact and would amend the DRBC plan for the basin.

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