N.J. pressures river panel to adopt gas rules
New Jersey is playing hardball with an interstate commission considering rules on natural gas drilling affecting the Delaware River.
At two recent meetings of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) - one of them Wednesday - the New Jersey representative, John Plonski, said the state might withhold payments to the financially strapped commission if it failed to vote on the rules at its next meeting, in September.
Critics said the state was improperly engaging in strong-arm tactics.
"It's shocking that a state would pull this kind of bullying tactic that amounts to extortion," said Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental-advocacy group.
A spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, where Plonski is the assistant commissioner for water resources management, said Plonski merely wanted the commission to act.
"All we're doing is putting a little pressure on the DRBC, saying let's make sure that you don't sit on this issue, that you assess it properly and come to a decision," said Larry Ragonese.
"The No. 1 complaint about government is that it does not act," he said. "We're trying to have government be responsive in a timely fashion."
The industry has consistently urged the commission to act so that drilling can proceed.
The DEP comments struck Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club as disingenuous. "Then how come they don't act" on other environmental measures, Tittel said. "Want me to go down the list of things they're holding up?"
When it comes to environmental protection, the DEP waits, he said, "and when it comes to what polluters want, they think, we've got to hurry up and do it."
The commission, an interstate agency formed by a federal compact, regulates water quality and quantity in the area drained by the Delaware River and its tributaries, which collectively provide drinking water to Philadelphia and New York City.
Its five members are states with land in the basin - Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware - plus a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Most of the upper basin is atop the Marcellus Shale formation, rich in natural gas. Thousands of drilling leases have been filed in northeastern Pennsylvania within the watershed.
The commission has enacted what amounts to a moratorium on gas drilling in the basin until regulations are in place, and that has led to a tug-of-war not only about the regulations but also how fast the commission should adopt them.
In December, the commission proposed a set of regulations that environmental groups said were weak and the industry said were onerous and unnecessary.
A public comment period that would have ended March 15 was extended to April 15.
By then, the commission had received nearly 70,000 submissions. Now, the staff is categorizing them and preparing a document to respond to them, DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert said.
Next, revisions might have to be made to the proposed rules.
Rupert said that he could not speculate how long this would take, but that for months the commission staffers have been saying that the earliest they could have something ready for the commission to vote on would be its September meeting.
Whenever the staff work is completed, the commission has a number of options. It could vote on what is presented. Or, if significant revisions are proposed, it could vote to seek more comment.
"Shouldn't the timing of the release of the natural gas rules be based on a careful review and scientific analysis of the comments that were received by the commission?" Carluccio said. "Not when one state arbitrarily sets a deadline."
Ragonese said that New Jersey also wants the regulations to be based on science and fact, and that DEP Commissioner Bob Martin has always said he wants to protect the river.
"We think a lot has been brought to them," Ragonese said. "They have had good time to consider it. We would really like to get something moving."
Pennsylvania and New York officials declined to comment. A spokesman for the Army Corps said its representative would be prepared to vote at the September meeting; he did not say what the vote would be.
The Delaware representative on the commission, Kathy Stiller, water director for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said: "We are still looking at the deadline issue and haven't taken a position on it yet. Delaware's goal is to make sure we get the regulations technically correct. We do recognize that some guidance needs to be in place sooner rather than later."
If New Jersey were to withhold funds, the commission could be in a tight spot.
Under the compact, each of the five members pays a "fair share" of the annual budget. For the fiscal year that began July 1, the amounts were $893,000 each for Pennsylvania and New Jersey (25 percent of the total each), $626,000 for New York (17.5 percent), $447,000 for Delaware (12.5 percent), and $715,000 for the federal government (20 percent).
But although the commissioners commit to these amounts, they may never be funded.
With the exception of one year since 1996, the federal government's amount has never been appropriated. The U.S. government is more than $9 million in arrears.
New York's fiscal year began April 1, and it appropriated $355,000, slightly more than half its share.
Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey have budgeted their full amounts.
Even with that, the commission had to make up a shortfall of more than $400,000 this year, Rupert said, from "undesignated reserves."
Meanwhile, even as the Christie administration is pushing for the DRBC to act, state legislators want to put the brakes on the industry.
On June 29, the Assembly and Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation to prohibit a gas-extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing - or "fracking" - in the state. In effect, it would ban most drilling in the state.
Gov. Christie has a 45-day window to act on the legislation.
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