The Delaware River Basin Commission announced Monday that its recent decision to temporarily ban new permits for natural gas drilling in the Delaware River watershed would also cover all "exploratory" wells.
Carol R. Collier, the DRBC's executive director, said extending the ban, pending development of new environmental regulations, would remove "any regulatory incentive for project sponsors to classify their wells as exploratory" and drill before the new natural gas regulations are in place within six months to a year.
The DRBC announced the temporary ban on new permits last month.
Environmentalists pushed for the extension, arguing that natural gas companies could get around the ban by simply calling new wells "exploratory" as they seek to tap into rich natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation that runs beneath much of Pennsylvania.
The commission said the action was a recognition of "the risks to water resources . . . that the land disturbance and drilling activities inherent in any shale gas well pose."
Kathryn Klaber, executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, said extending the temporary ban on new permits to include exploratory wells only added "layers of unnecessary red tape" without any environmental benefit.
"The DRBC's decision to deny Americans the benefits of clean-burning, job-creating natural gas from the Marcellus Shale is misguided and unfortunate," she said.
New technologies, she added, are reducing the overall water usage and land disturbance.
"At the same time, this production is creating tens of thousands of jobs and delivering affordable, clean-burning energy to struggling families and small businesses. Our hope is that the DRBC will recognize this fact and act accordingly, putting commonsense solutions and policies ahead of agendas," she said.
Environmental advocates praised the move, saying that a moratorium on all new drilling was appropriate until the regulations were in place.
Maya van Rossum, of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group, said the commission was "rightfully extending its reach."
"Since all gas well projects have the potential to pollute and degrade the environment and the water resources on which we all depend, it is essential that there be no loophole that allows some wells to escape DRBC oversight, no matter what they are called," van Rossum said. "The DRBC is moving in the right direction towards a total and complete moratorium."
The commission is allowing exploratory wells that were permitted by the state on or before Monday to move forward. But the grandfathered wells would need commission approval before they could be "fractured" - a process necessary to release the gas - or otherwise modified for natural gas production.
The DRBC was formed by a federal compact; its members are the governors of the four basin states - New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware - plus a federal appointee. The Pennsylvania counties that are totally or partially within both the Marcellus formation and the Delaware River watershed are: Wayne, Pike, Monroe, Carbon, Schuylkill, Luzerne, and Lackawanna.
While drilling has escalated in the rest of Pennsylvania, the commission has proceeded more cautiously, citing concern for the Delaware River.
The stretch from Hancock, N.Y., south to Trenton, is so clean that it is under stricter "special protection waters" regulations, issued by the DRBC. Also, portions of the river have been designated wild and scenic areas, worthy of enhanced protection, by the federal government.
Downstream are Philadelphia's water intakes, which has generated increasing interest in this region about what happens upstream.
The process of extracting the natural gas, seen as an important and cleaner substitute for petroleum, involves injecting millions of gallons of water enhanced with chemicals, including some toxins, deep into the well and pressurizing it to fracture - or frack - the rock.