The natural-gas industry is headed our way, and it’s getting very little attention and even less scrutiny from regulatory agencies. If the Delaware River Basin Commission (comprised of the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and a federal commissioner) votes to approve draft rules on gas development, companies that have already drilled thousands of natural-gas wells in Western and Northern Pennsylvania will have the go-ahead to drill deep underground shale near the streams and creeks that flow into the Delaware—the source of drinking water for 15 million people.
However, the DRBC has twice postponed its vote, and has yet to reschedule. DRBC spokeswoman Kate O’Hara says there are “issues to work through,” and that there is “no timeline at this point” when asked when the vote would be rescheduled. She declined further comment.
Meanwhile, anti-fracking advocates—long concerned with the possible health risks associated with drilling—declared the delay a victory over the industry and see it as a possible stalemate over industrializing the river basin.
“There is no sane, credible, sensible argument for going forward with drilling based on what we know,” says Maya van Rossum, an attorney who heads the Delaware River Keeper. The nonprofit filed a lawsuit in August with the attorney general of New York and Philadelphia’s City Council against the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies, arguing that allowing drilling to take place violates the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, by moving forward in the Delaware River without doing an impact assessment. The suit calls for a study on health and environment before large-scale industrial operations can take place. “People are getting sick, drinking water is getting polluted, air is getting polluted, soil is getting polluted,” says van Rossum. “Jobs are being lost. A tremendous amount of harm is being done because of industrial shale gas drilling.”
However, the lawsuit would probably do little to halt development. If the DRBC votes in favor of drilling, construction could begin in as little as 60 days—unless a court finds a reason to issue an injunction that would halt operations.
The industry is known for swift development. In Colorado, less than six months after approval, 10 well pads were built on the Colorado River, the “source of agricultural and drinking water for 25 million people downstream,” according to a report on natural gas by the Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX).
City Council is right to be concerned. The natural-gas industry is exempt from the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. And Pennsylvania legislators have already signed off on allowing tankers to transport liquefied natural gas from Marcus Hook to the Gulf of Mexico. If natural-gas drilling happens in the upper Delaware, Philadelphia will be on top of a port, downwind of drilling to the west, and downstream of operations in the north.
And to date, there has not been a single cumulative impact study on the effects on health, water or the environment, even though some parts of the country have been extracting gas for nearly a decade. The EPA started an assessment this spring, which will be finished next year and released in 2014.
According to the TEDX report, chemicals used in drilling and fracking, and emitted during the industrial process, can cause flu-like symptoms, rashes, tingling and numbness, heart and lung problems, and more. People can be affected as far as 200 miles away from natural-gas areas, the report says.
Still, the natural-gas industry has overwhelming political support. Gov. Tom Corbett, whose election campaign was heavily supported by the industry, recently advised legislators on an impact-fee bill for Pennsylvania, in which companies would pay a tax for drilling. The tax would go toward rebuilding infrastructure, cleanup, and environmental programs, but in exchange local municipalities would have to give up their regulatory and zoning powers. The state would decide how to regulate the industry, and the governor’s advisory committee has a number of industry representatives on it.