The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) on Monday said its decision to temporarily ban new permits for natural gas drilling in the watershed has been extended to cover "exploratory" wells.

Last year the DRBC voted to require that energy companies obtain approval before beginning any gas extraction project in shale formations within the drainage area of the basin's special protection waters (see Daily GPI, June 1, 2009). In May the commission directed staff to draft regulations for gas well pad projects in shale formations, which could take six months to a year (see Daily GPI, May 12).

Extending the drilling ban to cover exploratory drilling removes "any regulatory incentive for project sponsors to classify their wells as exploratory" before the new gas rules are in place, said DRBC Executive Director Carol R. Collier.

Exploratory wells that were permitted by the state before Monday are allowed to move forward. However, the "grandfathered" wells still require DRBC approval before they may be hydraulically fractured or otherwise modified for gas production.

Extending the drilling ban recognizes "the risks to water resources...that the land disturbance and drilling activities inherent in any shale gas well pose," Collier said.

"For the purpose of this determination, any natural gas well drilled in or through shale is assumed to be targeting a shale formation and is subject to this determination, unless the project sponsor proves otherwise," Collier added. All other aspects of the 2009 determination remain in effect.

The temporary ban on new permits to include exploratory wells adds "layers of unnecessary red tape" without any environmental benefits, said Kathryn Klaber, executive director of the producer-led Marcellus Shale Coalition.

"The DRBC's decision to deny Americans the benefits of clean burning, job creating natural gas from the Marcellus Shale is misguided and unfortunate," Klaber said.

New technologies have reduced overall water usages and disturb less land, she noted.

"At the same time, this production is creating tens of thousands of jobs and delivering affordable, clean burning energy to struggling families and small businesses," she said. "Our hope is that the DRBC will recognize this fact and act accordingly, putting commonsense solutions and policies ahead of agendas."

Maya van Rossum of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the DRBC was "rightfully extending its reach."

"Since all gas well projects have the potential to pollute and degrade the environment and the water resources on which we all depend, it is essential that there be no loophole that allows some wells to escape DRBC oversight, no matter what they are called," van Rossum said. "The DRBC is moving in the right direction towards a total and complete moratorium."

Gas drilling has escalated across some parts of the Marcellus Shale trend, especially in Pennsylvania, but the DRBC has proceeded more cautiously, citing concern for the Delaware River watershed.

While drilling has escalated in the rest of Pennsylvania, the commission has proceeded more cautiously, citing concern for the Delaware River. Some portions of the basin are considered "special protection waters," and are strictly regulated by the DRBC. Other portions of the river have been designated as "wild and scenic" areas, deemed worthy of enhanced federal protection.

Anyone "adversely" affected by the DRBC's action may request a hearing by submitting a request in writing to the DRBC secretary within 30 days of the supplemental determination (Monday).

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