The members of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) likely knew what would happen once they issued their 83-page proposed rulemaking to conditionally allow natural gas drillers to tap into the watershed.

If it's comments the commissioners wanted, they are sure to get them from possibly thousands of people in person and through e-mails. The public now has about three months to offer their take on the rules package and three public hearings also are to be held across the four-state region of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania (see Shale Daily, Dec. 10).

DRBC Executive Director Carol R. Collier said the commission's proposal was meant to complement what the affected states may be doing to ensure gas extraction is done safely.

"If a state has a regulation that's equal or more stringent, then the state takes the lead," she said. Although the DRBC was pressured by environmental groups and some state officials to ban drilling within the watershed, Collier said the commission felt it was "appropriate now to start the formal review process so the public could see the direction DRBC is proposing."

The draft regulations include wastewater disposal rules related to gas drilling, which member states have yet to address with the same authority, she said. The DRBC is tasked with managing the river system in an integrated way.

Commissioners expect to receive a huge amount of e-mails and people at the public hearings, said DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert. Dates and locations for the hearings aren't official but they likely will be in New York City, Trenton, NJ, and in the Pennsylvania-New Jersey region known as the Lehigh Valley.

"There's been a lot of hard work to come to this point," said Rupert. The commission is "at a good point" and hoped to receive "thoughtful and constructive input from all points of view."

Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) President Kathryn Klaber said the rulemaking "marks the long-awaited start to a process that we hope will create a common sense road map aimed at safely leveraging the Marcellus Shale's clean-burning natural gas reserves into a supply of clean fuel and thousands of good paying jobs."

The MSC expects the final regulations "to be compatible with state regulations and avoid duplicative or conflicting requirements," she said.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger also called the draft rules "a good first step that is necessary to move this process forward...It's time for the public to have their say on these matters."

Once finalized, the DRBC's rulemaking may complement many of DEP's measures to strengthen oversight of gas development in Pennsylvania, said Hanger. In the past two years the commonwealth has more than doubled the number of DEP staff regulating the industry to 202 employees and advanced several state-specific regulatory requirements, he added.

The proposals also were hailed by Marian Schweighofer, executive director of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance. The alliance represents 2,000 Wayne County, PA, families who joined together to negotiate leases with Hess Corp. and Newfield Exploration Co., the biggest leaseholders in the Delaware River Basin.

"It's a huge step forward that we even have draft regulations to consider," Schweighofer said.

However, commissioners published the draft package without calling for an environmental impact study, which environmental groups and some state officials had requested. New York Gov. David Paterson and New Jersey environmental chief Bob Martin earlier last week had asked the DRBC to delay issuing any rules (see Shale Daily, Dec. 9).

The New York Assembly sent Paterson legislation late last month to impose a temporary ban on hydraulic fracturing of wells until May 15 (see Shale Daily, Dec. 1). As of Friday Paterson had not signed nor vetoed the legislation.

Cas Holloway, commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, criticized the DRBC for not completing a study on environmental impacts first.

"While we don't agree with the release of draft regulations without the benefit of a comprehensive study, we will continue to work with the commission to ensure that the cumulative impacts are known before any final regulations are issued," said Holloway. "Our own study concluded that based on the current science and technology that hydrofracking in the watershed shouldn't be allowed; it's compatible with maintaining the water quality that nine million New Yorkers rely on."

In addition, New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who has pushed for legislation to ban fracking, said the commission "has failed significantly in its mission to protect the tremendously important water resources of the basin."

The proposed rules are "weak, ineffective, and full of loopholes," according to the New Jersey Sierra Club. Further, "these rules are dangerous because on the surface, it looks like the DRBC is doing something when they're not."

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the DRBC was making a "grave mistake" to "rush forward with half-baked regulations before the needed scientific analysis is done through a cumulative impact analysis."

Energy industry veteran Michael J. Economides also spoke out against the proposed package -- because more stringent drilling rules shouldn't be required, he said.

"Hydraulic fracturing is an absolutely necessary process for removing natural gas from the ground and cultivating this very attractive and environmentally friendly form of energy," said Economides. "Natural gas exploration must be guided by best practices set forth by engineers, not a one-size-fits-all approach to regulation. These rules usurp local control, and that is in no one's best interest.

"About 100,000 wells utilize the hydraulic fracturing process worldwide each year," he said. "Fracking is a well established natural gas well completion process, and the best practices used by the industry have been validated time and time again for six decades. The industry has an impeccable safety record in this field."