A regulatory agency that’s responsible for the water supply of more than 13 million people in four Northeastern states voted Thursday to permanently ban natural gas drilling and fracking near a crucial waterway, asserting that gas development poses an unacceptable threat.
The Delaware River Basin Commission cited “significant immediate and long-term risks” from gas extraction, asserting that drillers have “adversely impacted surface-water and groundwater resources, including sources of drinking water, and have harmed aquatic life in some regions.”
The ban applies to two counties in Pennsylvania’s northeastern tip that are part of the nation’s largest gas field, the Marcellus Shale. Nearly 13,000 wells have been drilled elsewhere in the vast Marcellus formation, turning Pennsylvania into the nation’s No. 2 gas-producing state.
Republican state lawmakers in Pennsylvania as well as a landowners group have filed lawsuits challenging the commission’s right to regulate gas development in the watershed. The commission has representatives from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and the federal government.
Thursday’s vote was 4-0, with the federal government abstaining.
Business and industry groups condemned the ban, which made permanent a moratorium on drilling and fracking in the Delaware watershed that had been in place for more than a decade.
“There is no support to any claim that drilling results in widespread impacts to drinking water, rivers or groundwater,” said Gene Barr, chief executive of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. “This was a political decision uninformed by science.”
Farmers and other landowners who had once leased their land to drilling companies have bitterly opposed the moratorium.
Drilling opponents, meanwhile, have long contended that large-scale gas exploration could not be done safely so close to crucial waterways and renowned fisheries. The Delaware and its tributaries supply drinking water to Philadelphia and half the population of New York City.
“This is a watershed moment for protecting one of America’s most iconic watersheds,” said PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur. “Fracking shouldn’t be allowed anywhere, much less near an iconic natural waterway like the Delaware River.”
Conservation officials once estimated that gas companies had more than 300 square miles of watershed land under lease. The drillers have long since pulled up stakes amid the longstanding moratorium.
The water agency had imposed what it said was a temporary moratorium on gas development in 2010, citing the need to develop environmental regulations for the industry, before reversing course in 2017 and signaling it would enact a permanent ban.
Energy companies combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a technique that injects vast amounts of water, along with sand and chemicals, underground to break up the shale and release the gas.