March 5, 2021

Fracking ban in Delaware River Basin is a historic win, but itís time to look downstream

Last month, environmental activists scored a major win when the Delaware River Basin Commission banned fracking in the Delaware watershed. The commission imposed a moratorium on fracking in the basin in 2010 and on Feb. 25, 2021, voted unanimously to make it permanent. In a statement, Gov. Tom Wolf said that Pennsylvania supported the ban “to protect the water resources of the Basin, the source of drinking water for millions of Pennsylvanians.” New Jersey’s Gov. Phil Murphy added, “Fracking poses significant risks to the water resources of the Delaware River Basin.”

With the ban, the area allowed for fracking of the Marcellus shale — a large rock formation under Appalachia and one of the largest sources of natural gas in the country — has become smaller. In 2014, New York state imposed a moratorium on fracking now codified as part of the state budget. Maryland, the northwest tip of which sits on the Marcellus, banned fracking in 2017.

The latest development from the DRBC should signal a turning point in the discussion on fracking in Pennsylvania. The commissioners approved the ban despite a lawsuit brought by Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers, along with a Wayne County township, contending that the commission doesn’t have the authority to ban fracking. A hearing in federal court is scheduled for the fall.

Now that the DRBC ban on fracking is permanent, it is time to look downstream. Fracking is only the first step in the lifespan of natural gas — and is not the only step that can harm people’s health or the environment.

When New York banned fracking, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared that “no child should live” near a fracking site. But in the years since, New York still took steps to increase demand for natural gas — such as approving new natural gas power plants supplied by fracked gas from Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania residents suffer from gas spills from pipelines. A recent example was a 8,000-gallon spill from Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 in Upper Uwchlan Township that polluted a nearby lake last August. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered Sunoco to abandon the drill in that area, having imposed $15.9 million in fines for leaks over four years.

The DRBC is also not completely out of the fracking game. While there can be no drilling in the basin, the commission delayed making a decision about whether water from the watershed could be used in fracking elsewhere. More concerning, in December, DRBC approved a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal in Greenwich Township, N.J., across the river from Philadelphia International Airport. LNG exports, along with petrochemical plants, are a part of a strategy to deal with the historic low prices and glut of supply of natural gas. But there are increasing concerns about the dangers and hazards of transporting LNG via trucks and trains. Gov. Murphy said he intends to stop the plan and his team is reviewing the legal options.

In the summer of 2019, Philadelphia avoided catastrophe. An explosion in the Philadelphia Energy Solution oil refinery released 5,239 tons of the poisonous hydrofluoric acid to the air. A 38,000-pound fragment of the refinery flew across the Schuylkill.

The explosion should have served a reminder not only of the dangers, but of the fact that so many potentially dangerous sites are near communities already overburdened by the health impacts of environmental degradation.

The intended end point of the Mariner East 2 pipeline is the Marcus Hook terminal near Chester, a predominantly Black city that has been contending with the environmental impacts of waste incineration and power plants for decades.

When actions ban fracking while propping up the industry, the costs and harms don’t disappear — they just shift elsewhere. According to a recent PennFuture analysis, the estimated cost that fracking imposed on Pennsylvania in 2018 was $11 billion, including degradation of the environment and infrastructure, water contamination, health harm, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Standing up to a powerful industry the way the DRBC did is laudable — but the fight isn’t over. If fracking is too harmful for children in New York to live near, and too risky for the water in the Delaware basin, bans on fracking should go hand-in-hand with measures to ensure that children and water elsewhere aren’t contaminated.