WEST TRENTON, N.J. – The Delaware River Basin Commission agreed Wednesday to hold hearings in northeast Pennsylvania on whether to strengthen or weaken its moratorium on natural gas drilling deep below the river basin.
At issue is the quality and quantity of water in the Delaware River watershed, a mile beneath which lies the vast and natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, most of it in New York and Pennsylvania. The gas is extracted by hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," a horizontal drilling process using millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand — with the potential, critics say, to pollute and deplete the region's water resources.
Nearly 600 residents attended Wednesday's daylong DRBC meeting to plead their clashing cases: that drilling is needed not only to produce relatively clean energy but to save economically desperate communities — or that the process threatens groundwater and surface water pollution and could deplete streams and aquifers.
Landowners like Judy Ahrens of Hanesdale, Pa., argued that they should be able to lease the mineral rights to their land.
"It enables those of us who have farms to keep our farms so they can be passed on to our families so they don't have to be split up and developed," she said. Ahrens has sold the mineral rights on her 120-acre hay farm to a gas company.
Opponents say they are concerned about the chemicals used in fracking, some of them toxic and suspected human carcinogens.
"If we can't protect our drinking water, at what point are we letting corporate America just take over?" asked Carmen Barnes, of New York City, before the meeting.
In a related development Wednesday, one of the leading natural gas drillers in Pennsylvania disclosed the chemicals it uses in fracking, saying it wants to defuse the growing controversy about the industry's secrecy over the chemicals.
"We believe strongly that there's nothing to hide and the way to demonstrate it is to show it," said Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources Corp.
The Fort Worth, Texas-based company, which has permits to drill hundreds of wells in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, does not use carcinogenic materials in its process, Pitzarella said.
The Marcellus Shale has drawn a stampede of natural gas drilling companies to Pennsylvania in the last two years, lured by higher prices for natural gas and the ability to use the fracking process to extract huge amounts of the fuel. Last year, the DRBC declared a moratorium on drilling in the Delaware River basin while it works on regulations; without a permit to withdraw water, drilling companies can't operate.
That moratorium was extended in May to exploratory drilling as well. But Wednesday, it voted to allow two new exploratory wells in a part of Wayne County, Pa.
The commission said it expects to have a draft of its proposed regulations later this summer and a final vote by the end of the year.
Some gas interests are calling for the commission to overturn the moratorium entirely.
The DRBC, a compact representing the federal government and the states of Delaware, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has legal authority for water quality and quantity issues in the Delaware River basin.
While Pennsylvania does allow natural gas drilling by hydraulic fracturing, New York has declared a moratorium while it adopts its own state regulations.
Critics of the fracking process point to a major blowout on June 3 in Clearfield County, Pa., where gas and wastewater spewed out of control for 16 hours before the well was capped. On Tuesday, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection slapped a $400,000 penalty on the driller, EOG Resources Inc., and its contractor on the job, for failing to use a proper backup system when it hooked the well to a pipeline.
The Range Resources announcement was well-received by the nonprofit environmental group Clean Water Action.
"This has been the most responsive thing we've seen industry do," said Myron Arnowitt, the group's Pennsylvania state director. "It sounds like they are starting to get what would be helpful for people."
Pitzarella, the Range Resources spokesman, said the company provided to The Associated Press the complete list of hazardous chemicals it uses in its Pennsylvania drilling operations. The hazardous chemicals are heavily diluted with water and sand, he said, and make up no more than 0.04 percent of everything pumped into the ground.
"At that dilution, they pose little and probably zero health impacts," Pitzarella said.Still, Arnowitt said he worries that the chemicals are not diluted enough to be safe for human exposure.
State environmental regulators, as well as industry officials, say they know of no examples of fracking chemicals poisoning underground drinking water sources in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. However, environmental advocates contend that not enough research has been done to come to that conclusion.
Arnowitt said he needed time to study the list and concentrations.
"The concentrations are certainly high enough that ... I don't think anyone looking at this could say, 'Oh yeah, this looks fine,'" Arnowitt said.
The chemicals include hydrochloric acid, glutaraldehyde, ethylene glycol, methanol, ethanol, propargyl alcohol, sodium hydroxide and n-alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride.
The Sierra Club congratulated Range Resources on the "first step" and then called on other gas drilling companies to disclose their chemicals used in each state.
Levy reported from Harrisburg.