Pennsylvania officials are renewing their effort to get fellow members of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to agree to revised water quality regulations that could ultimately open the basin to expanded Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.

The five commission members were to vote on a proposal to revise the DRBC regulations last November, but the meeting was canceled and the proposal postponed indefinitely after Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said he opposed it (see Shale Daily, Nov. 21, 2011). A moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the basin remains in effect.

Patrick Henderson, energy adviser for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, told NGI’s Shale Daily that the Keystone State wants to get the proposal back on track and the moratorium lifted.

“Our goal is to try and get to the three votes to lift the existing moratorium,” Henderson said. “We’re renewing our continuing effort to try and get the three magic votes. We want to sit down with the other states and ask what their issues are. We think we’ve got a very good story to tell here. We’ll walk them through Pennsylvania’s regulations and hopefully try and alleviate whatever lingering concerns they have.”

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 commission will next meet on July 11, but the proposal from last November is not on the agenda.

Before last November’s meeting was canceled, New York officials said they would have joined Delaware in opposing the plan, but Pennsylvania was ready to vote in favor of it. New Jersey was undecided.

“We thought we were in a good position last November to get a favorable vote,” Henderson said. “We were confident that [at] a minimum New Jersey and the [USACE] were going to support this, and that gets you the three votes to move forward. But for a variety of reasons, New York outlined what their particular issues are late in the game.”

New York and New Jersey officials’ positions may prove pivotal. Last year New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against the federal government for not conducting a full environmental review of the proposed regulations (see Shale Daily, June 1, 2011). Two months later, the federal government asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York to dismiss the case — State of New York v. Army Corps of Engineers et al. (No. 1:11-CV-02599) — and subsequently won the right to intervene (see Shale Daily, Aug. 12, 2011; Aug. 4, 2011). The case is still pending.

However, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration apparently is working on a plan to allow limited high-volume fracking in five counties in the state’s Southern Tier (see Shale Daily, June 14). The easternmost portion of one of those counties, Broome, lies in the Delaware River Basin.

Meanwhile, New Jersey officials have called for the DRBC to enact a fracking pilot program with the commission in charge of rules and oversight (see Shale Daily, April 20, 2011). New Jersey also wants drilling initially limited to no more than 30 well pads and 300 wells in the first two years.

“Our position is still the same,” New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese told NGI’s Shale Daily on Monday. “We’ve made it clear that we do not completely oppose fracking, but we will only accept it with very strict regulations. And we want the pilot project we included done, with an examination of the environmental results following it.”

Henderson said Pennsylvania “absolutely” believes that New Jersey could still be a potential “yes” vote to the DRBC plan. “We respect that whatever New Jersey or Delaware or New York decides to do within their own state is their prerogative. Moving forward on the DRBC regulations does not mean that drilling activity has to occur within each of the member states, it just means that it’s not prohibited. So therefore it kicks it back to the states to decide whether or not to proceed.

“What we would like to do is see that activity in Pennsylvania can at least proceed. Nobody’s drilling in Delaware or New Jersey, so it’s an academic discussion there. In New York, they’re having their own conversations about drilling activity. But moving forward on the [DRBC] does not upset any of those apple carts; they can still have those discussions.”

Asked if the USACE would wait until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had concluded a study on fracking (see Shale Daily, Nov. 4, 2011) before committing to a DRBC plan, Henderson said, “Anything is possible, but leading up to November they didn’t indicate that they needed to pause and wait until that study came out, which won’t be until 2014. At least the signals we got, they were still comfortable going forward because we were putting a strong regulatory package in place.”

Henderson added that many landowners in eastern Pennsylvania, especially in Susquehanna, Wayne and Pike counties, were becoming increasingly frustrated (see Shale Daily, Jan. 6). “They’re frustrated because they’ve leased property. Some of those payments for the leases are contingent upon the operators actually being able to drill and move forward.”