As the new deadline to comment on the Delaware River Basin Commission’s Draft Natural Gas Development Regulations approaches on April 15, responses are arriving in droves and few are supportive.
Some say the regs are too tough. Others say they’re not tough enough. Many charge that the agency should not move forward until a cumulative impact study has been completed. Others argue that the DRBC should limit its purview to water issues. But the embattled agency stands behind its position that what happens to the forested watershed of the Upper Delaware Region ultimately affects the Delaware River.
Meanwhile, multitudes are weighing in, with more than 4,000 online comments as of March 29. In Pennsylvania, the Wayne County Planning Commission’s (WCPC) harshly toned letter calls the draft regulations “an overreaching exercise and power grab on the part of the DRBC that can lead to countless other instances of the DRBC intervening in local land use issues.
With the right mix of self-proclaimed proactive envelope pushers in place at the DRBC, this first step is all that would be needed to justify the continued growth of DRBC’s intervention in local land use issues.”
The WCPC’s primary complaint, repeated four times, is that the DRBC “should focus solely on the issues of water allocation and wastewater disposal.”
Similarly, the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance (NWPOA) has provided an assessment of its opposition. Some key points that members are encouraged to comment on include NWPOA’s opinion that excessive setbacks and the definition of a water body will prevent drilling on most land in the basin; state and property owners’ rights are not being protected, DRBC is overstepping its compact by getting involved in land use issues and is ignoring economic development of the basin; there is duplication of what is already regulated by the states; the regs are discriminatory against the gas industry, holding them to more severe standards than other water users; and there are no time limits on the DRBC to act, ensuring “death by delay” for important projects.
NWPOA further charges that since the regulations are fee driven, the DRBC “may no longer be dependent on the states for funding and could become a super agency answering to no one.”
Meanwhile, three adjacent New York towns have submitted shared concerns about the risks of natural gas extraction, including “dangers to our citizens’ health, safety, property values and long-term economic sustainability.” The towns of Lumberland, Highland and Tusten assessed the regs individually and worked together to identify points for comment.
The letters commend the DRBC for its commitment to protecting the existing high water quality of the basin, then cite Section 7.4: “Each [project] will involve land disturbance for such appurtenances as roads, well pads, pipelines, impoundments, and compressor stations; and most will entail the withdrawal, diversion, importation into or exportation out of the basin of surface water, ground water, non-contact cooling water, mine drainage water, and/or treated wastewater. These uses may have a substantial effect, either individually or cumulatively, on the surface water and groundwater resources of the basin.”
The towns argue for the need for “thorough and exhaustive scientific studies in advance of industry activity,” including a basin-wide cumulative impact study. “The time to study widespread and multiplied impacts should happen before drilling and especially before the momentum and expectations of the industry become unstoppable and not subject to proper oversight due to the sheer magnitude of its presence in the basin.”
Concerns are also cited for inadequate enforcement capabilities at the DRBC as well as the two primary state agencies it will rely upon, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the New York Department of Conservation (DEC), both of which have suffered severe budget and staffing cuts.
The towns have also requested extension of the comment period another six months, additional hearings in New York City and Philadelphia and a second round of hearings following publication of the revised draft regulations.
Those on various sides of the issue appear to agree on one matter, charging that the regs provide too much discretionary authority to the agency. “Tremendous discretionary power is given, under these regulations, to the Executive Director and staff,” writes NWPOA. “There is tremendous potential for abuse and the lack of certainty will discourage investment in our region.”
“The draft document makes constant reference to ‘approval by rule,’ which grants the Executive Director discretionary authority to speed up the approval of drilling projects,” notes the Town of Lumberland letter. “We can only see this devolving into a situation where projects become rubber stamped due to the heat of the moment and the high volume of applications—leaving many projects lacking in proper oversight.”
Written comments will be accepted through 5 p.m. on April 15. Visit www.state.nj.us/drbc/  for more information.