The Obama administration has rejected a New York congressman's bid to put a temporary hold on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling and exploratory activities in the Delaware River Basin.

In a letter earlier this month, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) urged Brigadier Gen. Peter A. DeLuca, who is division engineer for the North Atlantic Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to require that the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) complete an impact study of gas drilling activities in the Delaware basin prior to issuing final regulations or permitting individual drilling projects in the region. The Delaware basin underlies about 36% of the prolific Marcellus Shale formation. DeLuca is the federal representative on the DRBC, while other members are from Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and New Jersey (see related story).

A House Appropriations subcommittee has approved $1 million for a U.S. Geological Survey-DRBC cumulative impact study on water withdrawals for gas drilling within the basin. Hinchey said he was hopeful funding would be available in fiscal year 2011 for the study.

"The process to execute this study and its results would greatly enhance the ability of the commission to make informed decisions...However there are many steps left in the legislative process [to approve funding]. And even if things progress promptly, it could be several years before the final results of the study are known," DeLuca wrote in his Sept. 14 reply to Hinchey.

"The federal family of agencies that I represent on the commission are collectively charged with a requirement to support the economic needs of the region and our nation's need to secure energy reserves while protecting the environment," he continued. "The DRBC has therefore attempted to avoid undue delays to the exploratory well program and is continuing to approve water withdrawal requests from drilling companies while withholding approvals for production wells so far."

Given that natural gas "is not uniformly distributed" throughout the Marcellus and Utica shale regions and the Delaware basin, "the DRBC is moving forward very deliberately and carefully with draft regulations that are designed to facilitate natural gas development while protecting the water resources of the basin," DeLuca said. The DRBC has said that it will not approve production wells until the regulations are refined and are in place, and "I will do my part to stand by that commitment," he said.

According to Hinchey, the DRBC faces the prospects of up to 30,000 new gas wells in the Marcellus Shale in the upcoming decade. He contends that these will have the potential to "significantly and adversely impact" the waters that the DRBC and other state and federal agencies are charged to protect.

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