For the Delaware River Basin, a Partial Fracking Ban Is a Partial Victory
UPDATE: On February 25, 2021, the Delaware River Basin Commission voted to outlaw fracking in the region. “Banning fracking in the Delaware River Basin is an historic event,” says NRDC senior attorney Kim Ong. “It marks a commitment to protecting human and environmental health—not just for those who depend on the Delaware River but for an entire planet threatened by climate change.”
Last July, after Karen Feridun and Tracy Carluccio delivered a petition with more than 63,000 signatures in support of a fracking ban in the Delaware River watershed to the office of Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf, they popped down to the cafeteria in the building. To their surprise, there was Wolf himself, surrounded by vending machines and a swirl of people. After months of hounding the governor’s administration, which typically did not respond, the activists realized that this was their chance to speak to him directly.
Feridun, founder of Berks Gas Truth, a grassroots group committed to ending fracking in Pennsylvania, whipped out her cell phone to take a video, while Carluccio, deputy director of the nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network, approached the governor and posed a simple question: “Would you support a ban?”
“Yes,” Wolf replied, without hesitation.
Carluccio’s voice and expression revealed her surprise: “You will?”
“Yes,” he repeated.
Glowing, Carluccio and Feridun thanked the governor. His support of a ban would represent a victorious end to seven years of effort.
Months later, the governor stayed true to his word, but the result was not the complete victory they’d hoped for. Yes, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC)—the body responsible for regulating water quality in the Delaware River and comprising the governors of Delaware, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania plus a federal representative—agreed to move forward with a fracking ban. But it was soon revealed that the ban was not total: While it prevented fracking itself in the watershed, a 12,800-square-mile area that spans four states and provides drinking water to more than 15 million people, the proposed rules still allowed for related harmful activities, such as the disposal of water laden with chemicals from the fracking process.
The commission gave no reasoning for this decision, but Feridun and others assumed it was motivated by a desire to buy industry favor while appeasing constituents. The decision of whether to pass the new regulations will likely be months in the making, with public comments closing on March 30.
Though disappointed, many activists were not surprised to learn that the battle was not quite over. Pennsylvania, after all, is the country’s largest producer of fracked gas. As Kimberly Ong, a staff attorney at NRDC, puts it, “In some ways, Pennsylvania is like a very, very big industry town.” While many Pennsylvanians are opposed to fracking and its related activities, given its myriad negative health and environmental impacts, others—especially those with ties to the industry—support it.
The DRBC’s recent decision creates a particular controversy around the Delaware River watershed. The river originates in New York’s Catskill Mountains and terminates in the Delaware Bay. The waters are key habitat for bass, shad, trout, American eel, and other aquatic species, and parts of it are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Around 40 percent of the basin also happens to sit above the natural gas–laden Marcellus Shale, a fact that caught the attention of fracking prospectors around 2010. Should drilling be allowed, up to 4,000 wells could eventually pock the watershed.
Proponents argue that fracking would bring jobs to underserved communities and say that it provides a more environmentally friendly substitute for coal. However, a clean and protected river basin supports more than 600,000 jobs that pay a total of $12 billion in annual wages—nearly four times the potential annual value of the natural gas industry (a mere $3.3 billion). Furthermore, the greenhouse gas emissions from the full life cycle of fracking make it just as harmful as coal, if not more so.
The potential ills that fracking may bring are well documented. Those living near wells have reported health complaints such as respiratory issues and pregnancy complications, and they are at increased risk of cancer and other diseases. Fracking can also contaminate groundwater, making it undrinkable and, in some notorious cases, flammable. The building of wells and pipelines wreaks havoc on rural communities and the environment, requiring natural areas to be cleared, new roads to be built, and a constant stream of large trucks to service each well.
The history of fracking regulation in the Delaware River Basin is complex. In 2010, the DRBC issued a moratorium on the practice, to buy the commission time to formulate regulations meant to keep the practice safe. Such regulations were drafted in 2011, but two days before a vote to adopt them, the governor of Delaware at the time, Jack Markell, announced that he would be joining New York governor Andrew Cuomo in opposing fracking in the basin entirely—meaning the vote would be split. The meeting was canceled, and Feridun and other activists shifted from protest mode to celebration rally.
For years, a de facto moratorium remained in place. Then, in 2016, the Wayne Land and Mineral Group, a landowner association, brought a lawsuit against the DRBC, challenging the commission’s jurisdiction to regulate fracking. “It wasn’t until that happened that this issue entered back into the public eye,” says Robert Friedman, a policy advocate for environmental justice at NRDC. President Trump’s election, he adds, has given fracking proponents a shot of energy.
After that lawsuit was filed, advocacy groups big and small—including NRDC, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Berks Gas Truth—launched into action. Their goal: to ban fracking in the Delaware River watershed once and for all.
After Governor Wolf’s support of a ban and the DRBC’s subsequent draft regulations to that effect, Feridun and her fellow activists were cautiously optimistic. They had enough experience, however, to know that it was too early to proclaim victory.
And indeed, the commission’s proposed ban didn’t go far enough. While fracking itself would not be allowed, millions of gallons of water could be drawn from the river to be mixed with some 1,000 chemicals and injected into the earth for fracking elsewhere. And the wastewater from such fracking operations could be disposed of in the watershed―potentially causing a host of problems, including long-term water contamination.
For NRDC and other anti-fracking groups, the proposed regulations are “completely unacceptable,” Friedman says. Public outcry played a major role in the DRBC’s original moratorium, and it could do the same for securing a complete and final fracking ban. But the DRBC, which did not respond to interview requests for this story, is not making it easy for citizens to have their voices heard.
The 90-day public comment period ends on March 30. Public hearings are scheduled for two days in two Pennsylvania locations, one near the Philadelphia airport, the other in the far-north town of Waymart. This means that only those in the area and those who can afford to take time off work to travel to the meetings will likely attend. Despite the obstacles, the activists bent on saving the basin remain undeterred. “We’re going to really go hog wild on getting comments,” Feridun says. “We want to overwhelm the dockets.”
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