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Smaller Delaware River Basin Marcellus Projects Under Microscope

A recent settlement of a case involving one of the first shale gas wells in the Delaware River Basin will change the way future Marcellus Shale wells are permitted in that region.

The terms of the settlement could eventually draw out the permitting process in the basin.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN) and Damascus Citizens for Sustainability appealed a permit the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued to Newfield Appalachia PA LLC for a vertical well in Wayne County. Newfield drilled but did not hydraulically fracture the well in the Upper Delaware River Basin, less than a mile from the river.

Through the appeal, the groups determined that DEP officials were not considering the impact of small projects -- those disturbing less than five acres of earth -- on "special protection watersheds," or the impact of wells on the river and river basin. Additionally, the groups estimated that DEP officials spent less than 35 minutes on average reviewing permits.

"The DEP needs to do a better job of reviewing permits, rather than just using its rubber stamp," said Jordan Yeager, lead attorney on the case for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Under the terms of the settlement, the DEP will now require applicants looking to permit smaller projects to show how they will comply with existing regulations protecting waterways.

"Pennsylvania's regulatory program is demonstrably deficient when it comes to protecting waterways and communities from gas drilling; this litigation and our depositions just highlighted a few of those pitfalls," said Maya van Rossum, of Delaware Riverkeeper. "Our settlement definitely secured important improvements to the review process, but we are under no misconception that this is in any way the cure for gas drilling in the commonwealth."

Although operators have leased significant acreage in the basin, development has been on hold since the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) placed a de facto moratorium on drilling in May 2010. The DRBC is adopting new regulations for natural gas drilling, an oft-delayed process. The DRN is opposed to the regulations as written, but landowners groups in Pennsylvania are increasingly frustrated by the ongoing delays (see Shale Daily, Jan. 6).

The settlement is the second in as many months that could slow the permitting process in Pennsylvania. To meet the terms of a 2009 settlement involving the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Talisman Energy USA Inc. and Ultra Resources Inc., the DEP said it would no longer offer expedited permitting for projects in fragile areas, such as "exceptional-value or high-quality watersheds," floodplains or contaminated lands (see Shale Daily, Jan. 27).

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