DRBC Releases New Shale Gas Drilling Rules, Votes Nov 21

new rulesThe Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) yesterday released a final version of new shale gas drilling regulations (copy embedded below). A vote will be taken on Nov. 21st to adopt the new regulations. So far, no Marcellus Shale gas wells have been drilled in the areas covered by the jurisdiction of the DRBC which includes large portions of Pennsylvania and New York, in addition to Delaware and New Jersey. Of those states, only PA has allowed gas drilling to date. The DRBC is a quasi-governmental body charged with protecting the environmental “health” of the Delaware River and its tributaries.

There has been an ongoing battle to allow drilling in the DRBC’s jurisdiction, which culminated in a series of public hearings in February of this year. The comments received at those hearings, and via email and post, were analyzed and some of the feedback incorporated into the newest version of regulations just released. If the new regulations are approved at the Nov. 21st meeting and the years-long moratorium is lifted, only maximum of 300 gas wells will be allowed until the DRBC reviews the effectiveness of the regulations and votes to allow further drilling.

New York State’s anti-drilling Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, is trying to stop any drilling in the DRBC by suing the agency, a lawsuit likely to be thrown out (see this MDN story). Other anti-drilling groups, like Delaware Riverkeeper, are also fussing about the release of the new regulations. But they may not have much to worry about. The DRBC has instituted several poison pill measures as part of the revised regulations, including astronomically high bonding requirements and huge setback provisions (how close you can drill to a creek or public water supply, for example). These measures may well make it impossible to drill in DRBC areas anyway.

The drilling industry and a pro-drilling landowners group reacted cautiously to the draft regulations, while New York’s attorney general and environmental groups that oppose any drilling in the watershed attacked the rules as inadequate.

"By issuing these modified draft regulations, the federal government continues to ignore New Yorkers’ concerns about the impact fracking may have on our environment, health and homes," said Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who has filed a federal lawsuit meant to halt drilling in the basin at least until a cumulative environmental impact study is performed.

Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum, whose organization has filed a similar lawsuit, said she doesn’t believe drilling can be conducted safely.

"Right now, we don’t see how drilling can happen in a way that protects the communities and protects the environment," she said.

The new rules would dramatically increase the amount of money that drillers would be required to post as "financial assurance" to cover the plugging and restoration of abandoned wells and the remediation of any pollution — from $125,000 per well in the 2010 draft to a minimum of $5 million per well and up to tens of millions under the latest proposal.

The commission also changed the setback requirements for gas well pads, reducing them in some cases and increasing them in others. The DRBC said it wanted to avoid "unnecessary duplication" of state regulations.

Peter Wynne, a spokesman for the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, a large landowners group in northeastern Pennsylvania, said the setback requirements proposed last year made drilling in the basin "a practical impossibility." He declined to offer an assessment of the new setback rules until his group hears from its engineering consultants.*

By contrast, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which oversees the Susquehanna River (and its tributaries) that flows into the Chesapeake Bay, has allowed shale gas drilling for years with no ill effects.

The DRBC web page offering a download of the new regulations along with transcripts of public comments and other back ground material is available here: //www.state.nj.us/drbc/notice_naturalgas-draftregs.htm.

*AP/Wall Street Journal (Nov 8, 2011) – DRBC tweaks proposed gas drilling regulations