Gov. Tom Corbett throws prose punch at federal-state agency over gas ban
Gov. Tom Corbett delivered a stinging rebuke to a federal-state agency that has declared a natural gas drilling moratorium in a large swath of Northeast Pennsylvania.
The governor expressed his anger in a letter to the Delaware River Basin Commission over its decision three years ago to put drilling on hold until it adopts its own environmental regulations.
"Operators interested in developing natural gas have closed offices and laid off employees," the governor wrote, "lease payments have been withheld; force majeure clauses in contracts have been exercised and communities have watched their neighbors outside the basin benefit tremendously."
The governor addressed the letter, dated Thursday, to Carol R. Collier, the commission's executive director, although action by the commission is driven by its voting members who are, in addition to Gov. Corbett, the governors of New Jersey, New York, Delaware and a federal representative from the Army Corps of Engineers.
A commission spokesman was unavailable for comment on Friday.
While most of the nearly 14,000-square-mile Delaware River watershed has not been leased by natural gas companies, a large portion of Wayne County north of Honesdale is secured for potential gas development.
In a joint venture, Hess Corp. and Newfield Exploration Company leased more than 100,000 acres. They drilled a handful of exploratory wells, although none have been hydraulically fractured to extract gas.
The commission's moratorium, declared in 2010, forbids it. Parts of Lackawanna and Luzerne counties are subject to the drilling ban as well as Wayne, Monroe and Pike counties.
The commission released two sets of draft regulations in late 2010 and 2011. The commission never voted on the rules and indefinitely postponed a vote that was scheduled to take place in November 2011.
Gov. Corbett noted the delay in his letter.
"Adoption of this moratorium ... was purportedly done to allow for the drafting of appropriate standards that would protect the water resources of the basin," he wrote. "However, deferring the submission of (gas permit) applications until regulations are adopted presumes that regulations will, ultimately, be adopted. That has failed to occur."
A commission spokesman has blamed politics for the inaction, noting that it is difficult to get governors from four states and a federal representative to agree on developing and enacting environmental regulations for a complex industry.
The regulations would have amounted to an additional layer of environmental protection as development in the basin would be subject to state regulation as well.
The West Trenton, N.J.-based DRBC is a product of the Kennedy Administration and was formed to protect water resources. The basin is home to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and provides drinking water to millions of people, including residents of New York City.
The commission is engaged in a delicate balancing act, to conserve natural resources while respecting private property rights and allowing for energy development.
Without more information gleaned from drilling, it will not be clear which western neighbor - Lackawanna County with its poor drilling results or Susquehanna County with its robust gas production - will be the closest counterpart to Wayne County.
Terry Engelder, a geosciences professor at Penn State University whose evaluation of the shale helped spark the current boom, suggested the outcome may please opponents of gas drilling in the basin more than its supporters.
"It will be great news for those residents in much of the area of Pike and Wayne County (and the DRBC for that matter) to learn that, in my opinion for whatever it is worth, they will have little to fear from the gas industry," he said by email, citing tests in Luzerne County and elsewhere that proved some areas of the Marcellus in Northeast Pennsylvania are not economic for development.
"However, there are other residents of these two counties who hope that I am wrong (and I have been wrong before) and who wish to have their properties evaluated for gas," he said.
Landowners who have leased their properties for gas development in the basin argue that the DRBC has kept them from financial prosperity.
Earlier this month, the Wayne County Commissioners' issued a letter to the DRBC urging the agency to not develop its own gas drilling regulations.
"The residents and property owners in Wayne County have suffered and continue to suffer from the disservice that is a consequence of inaction on behalf of the Delaware River Basin Commission," they wrote.
Staff writer Laura Legere contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: smcconnell@ timesshamrock.com @smcconnellTT on Twitter