Given what’s known and not known about natural gas extraction from shale, drilling for gas near the Delaware River is a bad idea. But the Delaware River Basin Commission has proposed new regulations that would permit drilling.
What it should be doing, instead, is imposing a moratorium on drilling until pending studies are concluded and more is known about the impacts of this practice.
Natural gas extracted from shale is playing an increasingly large role in meeting our nation’s energy demand. Some analysts expect shale gas to supply nearly half of the natural gas used in North America by 2020.
The Marcellus Shale, an enormous sedimentary rock formation that includes the Pennsylvania and New York sides of the Delaware River, as well as a small corner of northwestern New Jersey, is a hot target for drilling. As many as 10,000 additional wells are possible in the river basin alone.
Drilling there is on hold until the commission adopts the new rules, since the lower Delaware is classified as “special protection” waters. The public comment period ends on April 15, so now is the time to speak up. The potential impact on this federally designated Wild and Scenic river, which provides water to 15 million people, could be irreversible.
Methane gas has been extracted from naturally occurring fractures in shale for years, but the process of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) has recently caused a boom in shale gas production.
Fracking injects millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure down wells (often bored horizontally for greatest effect) to shatter the shale and extract the natural gas. Approximately 90 percent of all new natural gas wells use fracking.
Environmental problems are mounting as fast as new wells are drilled. Methane has contaminated neighboring drinking water wells. And there are instances in which residents near existing drill sites in the Delaware River Basin have set their tap water on fire.
A recent New York Times article revealed the scope of an even wider problem: wastewater from fracking is so contaminated it’s difficult to fully clean. Water with unsafe levels of radiation and chemical toxins — up to thousands of times greater than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards — is routinely discharged into rivers, streams and lakes near water-treatment facilities.
In December, the state of New York established a moratorium on fracking, pending an EPA study of environmental impacts. That report is due in 2012. A bill introduced in the New Jersey Legislature — A3313/S2576 — would ban fracking in New Jersey. These actions by the EPA, New York and New Jersey all make sense and deserve support.
What should astonish and outrage us all is that fracking is exempt from federal clean water regulations. Without the specter of federal regulation — and with licensing revenue flowing in — it’s no surprise that some states have largely ignored the mounting environmental concerns.
With so many questions unanswered about such a potentially devastating practice, the only responsible action is a moratorium on drilling in the Delaware River Basin.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.