New Jersey wants the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to ultimately oversee the approval process for natural gas well sites in the river basin, and is calling for a strict limit to the initial number of production wells to be drilled once it adopts regulations on hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking).

During the final day for public comment on Friday, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Commissioner Bob Martin said that for the first two years after the DRBC enacts hydrofracking regulations the commission should permit no more than 30 production well pads, and no more than a total of 300 production wells.

“The DRBC then should conduct an extensive study to assess the impact of the initial wells and the effectiveness of its regulations before any further drilling could occur,” NJDEP said.

NJDEP spokesman Larry Ragonese told NGI’s Shale Daily that the department had received estimates that, barring any restrictions, between 1,400 and 1,500 wells could be drilled in the basin within the first couple of years.

“We wanted to allow 15% to 20% of what might be there,” Ragonese said Monday. “We thought that would give us a really good working number of wells to be able to get the data and really give us an indication of what could occur from the hydrofracking process. We wanted a good sample.”

While environmental groups supported the comments from Martin and the NJDEP, they were critical that New Jersey did not insist on their changes being incorporated into the DRBC’s final rules governing gas drilling into Marcellus Shale play.

“The concern we have is that [NJDEP] did not say that this program should be put in place before the rules are adopted,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, told NGI’s Shale Daily on Monday. “They said go ahead and adopt the rules and then amend them later. I think that’s backwards. I’m not sure if this was more about public relations than actual public policy.”

Last year the DRBC voted to impose a moratorium on new well pad permits in the 13,539-square-mile basin, and in December proposed amending regulations over wastewater, well pad siting and water sources for natural gas development (see Shale Daily, March 4; Dec. 10, 2010). The new rules being considered are expected to allow drilling to resume, but under more oversight.

Tittel said New Jersey would have little recourse over getting its 30 pad/300 well proposal incorporated into the DRBC’s final rules, other than to not vote for them. Otherwise a majority of the members would need to pass an addendum to the rules, which Tittel said is unlikely.

“Once the rules are adopted and the moratorium is lifted, it would be very hard to then do this after the fact,” Tittel said.

But Ragonese said the NJDEP had “strongly recommended” its proposal.

“Our goal has been to try and work with the other states, not just dictate or slam our fists down,” Ragonese said. “We need to make our recommendations intelligently and to try to work with the others to hope that they can see our point of view. We think phasing this in with a small portion of pads and wells might be the way to do it. We want to be a good neighbor with our fellow states, but we also we have to protect the water supply and the environment of that basin.”

The Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) lodged its concerns with the DRBC last Tuesday, claiming the commission was exceeding its authority and its proposed rules duplicate existing state laws (see Shale Daily, April 14).

On the NJDEP’s 30 pad/300 well proposal, MSC spokesman Travis Windle told NGI’s Shale Daily on Monday that “arbitrary limits — by any regulatory agency — on overall well pad development and production of wells represent an unworkable overreach of authority.”

No drilling is currently being performed in New Jersey; geologists believe the Marcellus formation bypasses the Garden State. But lawmakers have been moving forward with several pieces of legislation that would preemptively ban hydrofracking there altogether (see Shale Daily, March 14). The NJDEP took that sentiment one step further Friday when — while stating that as many as 10,000 wells could one day be drilled in the Pennsylvania and New York portions of the river basin — they asserted that “no drilling would occur in New Jersey.”

The DRBC is led by the governors of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ North Atlantic division is also a commission member.