Opponents of a controversial method of natural gas extraction staged a last-ditch effort on Monday, November 14 to stop an interstate regulator from giving the go-ahead for gas production in the Delaware River Basin.
The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), consisting of the governors of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, plus Army Corps of Engineers which represents the federal government, is due to vote on Nov. 21 on proposed rules that would allow tens of thousands of gas wells to be drilled in the basin. Approval would lift a moratorium.
The wells, which would be sunk into the gas-rich Marcellus Shale, would use hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, which pumps millions of gallons of water, together with sand and chemicals, at high pressure about a mile underground where it breaks open fissures in the shale, allowing methane to be harvested.
Critics say the process threatens to contaminate aquifers with toxic fracking chemicals that could cause cancer and other serious illnesses for some 15 million people living in the Delaware Basin.
The booming gas industry, which has sunk almost 4,000 Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania since 2008, insists there has never been a case of water contamination from fracking, and argues that chemicals are injected through steel-and-concrete casings that prevent leakage into drinking water sources.
Fracking chemicals are released thousands of feet below aquifers, beneath layers of impermeable rock that stop any migration of toxic substances into drinking water, industry spokespeople say. They argue the industry is developing massive domestic reserves of cleaner-burning natural gas while helping to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and creating thousands of jobs.
But environmental groups point to health complaints ranging from headaches and nausea to arsenic poisoning and neurological problems among some people living near shale gas-drilling sites from Pennsylvania to Wyoming to Texas. Some Pennsylvania farmers blame the gas industry for birth defects in cattle.
On Nov. 7, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said following a gas well blowout, it found one private water well in Bradford County, Pennsylvania where elevated levels of methane and salts were consistent with chemicals used in nearby gas drilling. According to the report, the levels of methane and other salts in that one well increased 10 fold from samples taken in July 2010.
Tests on six other nearby wells did not suggest an impact from gas drilling although they found some chemicals at levels that may impact health, the agency said.
In Delaware, drinking water is not seen to be threatened by any contamination caused by the gas industry, but opponents say fish and other wildlife in the Delaware Bay may suffer from a buildup in toxins if the Delaware River becomes contaminated with fracking chemicals used in the watershed upstream.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based industry group, welcomed a revised draft of the DRBC rules, released on Nov. 8, which included a proposal that state regulators should oversee well construction and operation in the Delaware Basin, as they do in the rest of Pennsylvania.
Environmental groups including the Sierra Club, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Protecting Our Waters held news conferences in all four DRBC states on Monday urging commission members to vote against gas drilling, and to conduct a full environmental impact study on the effect of any future gas drilling.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, is a possible ‘no’ vote on the commission, given his environmental track record, said Iris Marie Bloom, director of Protecting Our Waters, a Philadelphia-based anti-fracking group.
Earlier this year, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Secretary Collin O’Mara told DFM News that Delaware was urging the DRBC to proceed judiciously when it comes to “fracking”.
“It’s more important to be right than fast,” O’Mara said in an interview with Delaware First Media. “These are decisions that will affect future generations.”
Campaigners are hopeful that New York Governor and Democrat, Andrew Cuomo will also vote against fracking given his state’s current moratorium on the industry.
A ‘yes’ vote is expected from Pennsylvania’s Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, a strong supporter of the gas industry, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, also a Republican, who in August vetoed a bill that would have permanently banned fracking in his state.
If the governors’ votes are an even split, it will fall to the Army Corps of Engineers to be the swing vote, and it may avoid doing that given public concern over fracking in an election year, said Bloom.
“The Obama Administration may not want to be the swing vote that allows fracking,” she said.
Given the voting speculation, and the recently announced delay of the controversial tar sands pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, fracking critics are daring to hope that they may win the day, said Bloom. “We have a sliver of a ghost of a whisper of a chance,” she said.
The Delaware press conference was held Monday at the University of Delaware, Trabant University Center