The Chesapeake Bay, long plagued by pollution from development across its 64,000-square-mile watershed, is showing "some encouraging signs of improvement," but is still "dangerously out of balance" and needs to be protected from a variety of threats, including natural gas drilling operations in the Marcellus Shale, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's (CBF) "2010 State of the Bay" report.

Drilling advocates claim that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is safe, "but a number of scientists and public health experts have called the claim into question," CBF said in its report. Some studies suggest water quality could be degraded "simply by the sheer number of well pads within a given region," and others have found hundreds of violations of state oil and gas laws by companies plying the Pennsylvania's portion of the Marcellus Shale (see Daily GPI, Aug. 4, 2010), CBF said.

The environmental organization also cited as concerns drinking water contamination, habitat and forest fragmentation, water withdrawal, management and treatment of waste water, stress on infrastructure and the Pennsylvania General Assembly's failure to pass a severance tax on drilling operations.

"Natural gas offers tremendous promise. At the same time, being vigilant about protecting our natural resources is everyone's responsibility," CBF said.

While the CBF didn't call for any specific actions, its prominent inclusion in the report sends a message that "natural gas will be watched closely by the foundation and possibly other environmental groups," according to one Lancaster Newspapers blogger in the area.

The debate over fracking is sparking concerns about drinking water safety in the Marcellus Shale area and nationwide, according to the results of a trio of surveys released by the nonprofit Civil Society Institute (see Shale Daily, Dec. 28, 2010). Outgoing New York Gov. David Paterson recently vetoed a bill that would have codified into law a moratorium on fracking in the state through May 15, while at the same time extending until July 1 a de facto moratorium on permits for fracking operations (see Shale Daily, Dec. 14, 2010).

But proponents of fracking say it is safe. Scott Anderson, senior policy advisor for the Environmental Defense Fund, has said he supports the practice in the production of shale gas, and believes it can be done safely (see Shale Daily, Nov. 1, 2010). Fracking has been regulated by states for more than 50 years, according to a Washington lobbyist for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (see Shale Daily, Nov. 5, 2010).

In the past, CBF has challenged permits for gas drilling activity in Pennsylvania, claiming the state's Department of Environmental Protection was "rubber stamping permit applications without any formal review" (see Daily GPI, Sept. 10, 2009).

The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), which oversees a watershed covering parts of four states just east of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, recently proposed rules that would allow natural gas development projects -- with conditions -- in affected areas of the Marcellus Shale (see Shale Daily, Dec. 10, 2010). The DRBC has federal regulatory authority to protect the watershed of the basin, which affects portions of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.