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A Tale of Two Eastern River Basins: To Drill or Not to Drill

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is urging the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to proceed with a proposal to revise water quality regulations, a move that could ultimately open the basin to expanded Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.

Meanwhile, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) said it will focus on regulatory activities and water quality monitoring related to shale gas development within the basin, as the organization begins its latest two-year Water Resources Program for the fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The current two-year program began on July 1 and ends on June 30, 2015.

In a letter dated June 27 to DRBC Executive Director Carol Collier, the Republican governor said Pennsylvanians -- especially those in Pike and Wayne counties, in the northeast part of the state -- feel "a profound sense of frustration and disappointment" over the continuing de facto moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the basin (see related story).

"This moratorium has done more than prohibit the citizens of Pennsylvania who reside within the basin from enjoying their property rights," Corbett said. "It has depressed economic growth in the region, discouraged the investment of private capital in the Commonwealth, and reflected poorly on the DRBC's ability to function effectively." He added that the moratorium has also driven away oil and gas companies interested in the region.

DRBC spokeswoman Kate Schmidt told NGI the agency's staff is "confident that the commissioners are taking Gov. Corbett's letter very seriously" but added that there was currently no time frame for lifting the moratorium. The DRBC is led by the governors of the four basin states (Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania) and the federal government, represented by the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' (USACE) North Atlantic division. The agency was near a vote to revise its water quality regulations in November 2011, but the meeting was canceled and the proposal postponed indefinitely after Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said he opposed it (see NGI, Nov. 21, 2011).

The SRBC is required by the Susquehanna River Basin Compact to create a water resources program every year and distribute it to the public. Six priority management areas are outlined in its latest plan, which totals 119 pages. Specific to shale gas development in the basin, the agency said it would continue to expand its Remote Water Quality Monitoring Network and its Early Warning System, which are both used by public water suppliers. The agency also said it was developing a Water Quality Portal website "to provide a greatly enhanced opportunity for the public to access SRBC water quality data."

The SRBC said for the 2014 fiscal year, it has contracted with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) for "complete monitoring activities focused on surface water quality conditions within select forest tract lands undergoing natural gas development." About 1.5 million acres of the 2.2 million-acre state forest system overlie the Marcellus, with 700,000 acres currently leased for drilling. Gov. Tom Corbett supports expanding more forested areas to leasing, but that hasn't happened yet for several reasons, including continuing low natural gas prices (see NGI, March 12, 2012; Nov. 15, 2010).

In an added twist, the SRBC -- an interstate compact that includes Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and the federal government -- said it would "improve overall regulatory coordination with New York and Maryland sister agencies, with particular emphasis on the anticipated expansion of natural gas well drilling in the Southern Tier region of New York."

New York has had a de facto moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) in place since 2008 (see NGI, July 28, 2008). A decision on whether to ultimately allow the practice is on hold, pending the results of a health impact analysis (see NGI, Sept. 24, 2012).

Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York (IOGA) spokesman Jim Smith told NGI that the SRBC's surprise statement about New York sounded speculative at best. "It sounds like they're just trying to show some due diligence and assume that at some point [HVHF] would go forward. If not, they've really lost nothing. It sounds like just smart planning, that in the event it goes forward here they would be ready for it."

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