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Agency votes to begin effort to ban fracking, horizontal drilling in US basin

A joint federal-state commission on Wednesday voted to move ahead with a rulemaking that would prohibit horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing across a large swath of eastern Pennsylvania, as well as the states of New York, Delaware and New Jersey.

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In a meeting of the board of the Delaware Basin River Commission, commissioners voted to publish for public comment a set of revised draft regulations for drilling operations within the river basin, which includes portions of the Marcellus Shale.

The vote was 3-1-1, with representatives of Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania voting yes, the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal government's representative voting no, and the New Jersey representative abstaining, Kate Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the DRBC, said.

Since the vote was a procedural resolution, no public hearing on it was required prior to commission consideration, Schmidt said.



About 25 people spoke during the meeting's open public comment session, which began at the conclusion of the business meeting and lasted one hour.

Most of the comments from those who spoke supported a ban on gas development in the Delaware River Basin, she said.

The revised draft regulations, which have been in the offing for about seven years, would prohibit the use of horizontal drilling and fracking in the basin, but would provide for the "safe and protective storage, treatment and disposal" of wastewater from horizontal drilling and fracking operations outside of the basin.

The proposed rules would also regulate the inter-basin transfer of fresh water and wastewater.

In the next step of the rulemaking process, the commission will issue revised draft regulations on or before November 30. The rulemaking process will require one or more public hearings and a written comment period and the commissioners are expected to adopt the final rules sometime in 2018, Schmidt said.

The DRBC vote is likely to re-ignite a long-simmering debate over whether the commission has the authority to ban fracking within the basin.

The river basin region has been under a fracking moratorium since 2010, when the commission launched a study on the impacts of the commonly employed drilling completion technique.

In the meantime, horizontal drilling and fracking have been used to great effect to unlock gas in areas just outside the Delaware River Basin, particularly in some counties in Pennsylvania. New York, where a statewide fracking ban already is in effect, is less likely to be affected by a fracking ban in the Delaware River Basin.

Advocates for the gas industry were quick to decry the commission's decision, while environmental groups argued the DRBC's proposed regulations do not go far enough to protect the waters of the basin.

Gas industry consultant Tom Shepstone said it is difficult to estimate how much gas will be locked up by the DRBC fracking ban. In an interview Wednesday, he said at least three producers -- Chesapeake Energy, Newfield and Hess -- have drilled exploratory wells in the region that would be impacted by the proposed ban, but because that data is still considered proprietary, "you wouldn't know what the actual production could be."

Shepstone estimated that a 1,100 square mile region of the upper Delaware River Basin in Pennsylvania and New York could be prospective for gas production, with about a third of that area on the Pennsylvania side of the state line.

In an interview, Nicole Jacobs, a spokeswoman for industry advocacy organization Energy in Depth, said the commission's vote does not change the fact that the DRBC should not have the authority to regulate drilling and fracking in the first place.

She said a lawsuit pending in the federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to result in a ruling on the extent of the commission's authority over gas development.

In addition, Jacobs said there is no evidence of the alleged harm from fracking that would warrant a ban on the practice. "Pennsylvania is no stranger to oil and gas development," she said.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission has studied water quality in areas where gas drilling is prevalent and found no impacts from fracking on water quality, she said.

Meanwhile, Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the DRBC action did not go far enough. "It's a good and bad day today," he said in an interview on Wednesday.

Tittel said he was disappointed that the proposed regulations would still allow drilling wastewater from other regions to be brought into the Delaware River Basin region for disposal.

He said such transfers of wastewater create the danger of spills, which also would have a harmful impact on the waters of the river basin. "The commission took one step forward and one step back," he said.

--Jim Magill, jim.magill@spglobal.com
--Edited by Keiron Greenhalgh, keiron.greenhalgh@spglobal.com