NEWTOWN, Pa. (AP) — A commission that oversees drinking water quality for 15 million people took an initial step Wednesday to permanently ban drilling and hydraulic fracturing near the Delaware River and its tributaries, drawing criticism from the natural gas industry as well as from environmental groups worried that regulators would still allow the disposal of toxic drilling wastewater inside the area.
The Delaware River Basin Commission voted 3-1, with one abstention, to begin the lengthy process of enacting a formal ban on drilling and fracking, the technique that's spurred a U.S. production boom in shale gas and oil. Besides other locales, the watershed supplies Philadelphia and half of New York City with drinking water.
The resolution approved by the commission says that fracking "presents risks, vulnerabilities and impacts to surface and ground water resources across the country," and directs the staff to draft regulations to ban it.
Representatives of the governors of New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, all Democrats, voted for the measure. A representative of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie abstained and a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer, representing the administration of GOP President Donald Trump, voted "no," drawing lusty boos from a strongly anti-fracking crowd attending the meeting outside Philadelphia.
"Today, we are acting to protect a watershed that supplies drinking water to more than 15 million people in one of the most densely populated areas of the country," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement.
Govs. John Carney of Delaware and Andrew Cuomo of New York issued similar statements of support. New York banned horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing statewide in 2015.
Environmentalists were infuriated by provisions they said would allow the industry to draw water from the river and its tributaries for hydraulic fracturing outside the region, and to dispose of fracking wastewater within the Delaware watershed.
"The frackers get our clean water and we get a Superfund site back. It's a wolf in sheep's clothing. This is not a deal that we should be making," Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, told commissioners.
Steven Tambini, the commission's executive director, urged critics to withhold judgment until they see the regulations. Draft regulations will be published no later than Nov. 30, with hearings and a public comment period to follow. Tambini anticipated that a final vote could take place next year.
"You don't know what the rules are going to say yet, so take it easy," he said.
The ban would apply to two counties in Pennsylvania's northeastern tip that are part of the nation's largest gas field, the Marcellus Shale. More than 10,000 Marcellus wells have been drilled in other parts of Pennsylvania since a natural gas boom began nearly 10 years ago, but the industry has been prevented from developing its acreage in the Delaware watershed.
Fracking is a technique that uses huge volumes of pressurized water, along with sand and chemicals, to crack open gas-bearing shale rock deep underground. Its environmental and health impacts remain hotly disputed.
The basin commission, which regulates water quality and quantity in the Delaware and its tributaries, imposed a moratorium on drilling and fracking in 2010 to allow its staff to develop regulations for the gas industry. A year later, the five-member panel was scheduled to vote on a set of draft regulations that would have allowed drilling and fracking to proceed, but it abruptly canceled a vote amid opposition from some commission members.
Business and industry groups blasted Wednesday's commission vote.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, representing drillers, and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry sent a letter to Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf asserting that given the volume of drilling elsewhere in Pennsylvania, "it defies both common sense and logic for the DRBC to conclude that natural gas development cannot be done safely within its watershed."