Four Governors Bar Fracking in the Delaware River Basin

The Philadelphia side of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge spanning the Delaware River
The Philadelphia side of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge spanning the Delaware River
Photo: Matt Rourke (AP)

A group of governors passed a resolution that would ban fracking near a crucial waterway on the East Coast, the culmination of more than a decade-long fight by activists and community members. The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), which is comprised of the governors of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York, ruled unanimously on Thursday not to allow fracking within the Delaware River Basin region.

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The ban, which covers 13,539 square miles (35,065 square kilometers) between the four states, includes two counties in the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania, where fracking has exploded over the past decade. The Delaware River Basin provides drinking water for around 13 million people in the region—around 5% of the entire U.S. population, including New York City and Philadelphia—and supports around 600,000 jobs and $10 billion in wages from industries like tourism, ports, and farming. The watershed also provides habitat for hundreds of species of animals and fish.

“If [industry] dug all those wells, if they put in all those pipelines to carry it to market, this wild and scenic river—one of the most beautiful and free-flowing rivers in the Northeast—would have all been destroyed,” said Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “You would have taken the Delaware Valley and turned it into the Permian Basin.”

The struggle to keep fracking out of the area started in 2007, when green groups began to hear the first rumors of gas companies filling out permit applications to drill wells in the areas around the river. At the time, Tittel said, the DRBC had no rules or regulations around the “thousands of applications” that were coming in.

“The next thing we know, they’re looking at developing regulations, and those regulations were weak,” Tittel said.

Activist groups quickly coalesced around the issue, helped by support from celebrities like Mark Ruffalo, and won a moratorium on drilling in 2010. The new permanent ban, Tittel said, is a testament to years of hard work.

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“This campaign was really about the tenacity of people sticking to their principles and organizing and getting their voices heard,” he said. “That’s how we won and moved the dynamic from ‘oh, it’s a bridge fuel,’ to now, ‘we’re banning it.’”

During the same hearing Thursday, the DRBC also put off deciding whether or not to allow water from the Delaware River to be used in fracking outside of the basin, and whether or not to allow processing of fracking waste from other areas in the region. Tittel said both issues are next on the list for groups to organize and fight against.

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Though Thursday’s announcement is a huge win for group’s like Sierra Club, the new ban already faces challenges. A month ago, a judge set a court date to hear lawsuits brought by landowners against the moratorium, which will now be suits challenging the ban itself. Republican lawmakers have also filed suit against the moratorium, alleging that it deprived state lawmakers of the ability to control natural resources. Tittel didn’t seem worried about these challenges, though.

“Anyone has a right to sue—but I don’t think they’ll win,” he said.

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Writing about climate change, renewable energy, and Big Oil/Big Gas/Big Everything for Earther. Formerly of the Center for Public Integrity & Nexus Media News. I'm very tall & have a very short dog.

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