TRENTON - In an emotional hearing Thursday on proposed regulations for natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale near the Delaware River, there was consensus on only one issue: The proposed rules don't get it right.
Environmental groups said drilling threatened water quality. Landowners said that the risk was overstated, and that the regulations would take away their property rights and reduce economic energy in a depressed area.
The proposed rules come from the Delaware River Basin Commission, a federal-interstate agency that monitors water around the river in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The water in the basin supplies about 15 million people, including half the population of New York City.
The DRBC has imposed a moratorium on drilling in its part of the massive underground Marcellus Shale formation in northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York state until the rule-making process is complete.
The commission's board will announce next week whether it will extend the comment period, which is to close March 16, executive director Carol Collier said. It will also announce then whether it will schedule more hearings closer to Philadelphia and New York City, as some anti-drilling activists have requested, she said.
Before Thursday's hearing in Trenton, which followed daylong hearings in Pennsylvania and New York state, the commission had already received comments from about 1,700 people.
Natural-gas drilling has become a boom industry in the Marcellus Shale, including in stretches of Pennsylvania not monitored by the DRBC. The agency expects that 18,000 or so wells could be drilled on about 2,000 sites within its jurisdiction in Pennsylvania.
Landowners there said they wanted to join the boom to create jobs, keep their farms, and make a kind of domestically produced energy that burns relatively cleanly.
For some, the regulation of their land by an unelected body - with the input of people from distant cities and suburbs - is troublesome.
"We just heard somebody from Bricktown, N.J., telling me what should happen to my property in Wayne County, Pa.," John Woodmansee said.
Several landowners said the regulations would be so restrictive that no drilling would be allowed.
As written, they would govern water withdrawal, the placement of well pads, and wastewater disposal, and require drilling companies to post a bond of $125,000 per well to cover the plugging and restoration of abandoned wells and the remediation of any pollution.
Environmental groups and their supporters - most of them not from northeastern Pennsylvania - contend the regulations would give the industry too much power to regulate itself.
They say the DRBC should hold further hearings and wait years until there are further studies on the effects of drilling, which uses "fracking," a technique that injects water, sand, and toxic chemicals underground to break up shale and release gas.
Jim Walsh, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, said the issue wasn't property rights. "We are talking about our drinking water here, something people need to live," he said.
There's no timeline for the commission to decide whether to impose the regulations, Collier said. But before the hearing, she said there were indications from the commenters that the proposed regulations struck the right balance.
"There's sort of equal weight on both sides," she said.