Over the last year or so we’ve worked with our friends at the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, Clean Water Action, Penn Environment, Sierra Club’s PA and MD chapters and other groups to urge the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) to amend its Comprehensive Plan to include a genuine cumulative impact study of hydraulic fracturing. It appears now that they will. While this is good news, no one is yet celebrating because we have a lot of details to iron out related to what the study should contain.
The SRBC last amended their Plan in 2008. Back then, few folks anticipated the unprecedented spread of natural gas wells throughout Pennsylvania. The Keystone state has a very long history of drilling for oil and digging for coal. Yet the new technologies developed for high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing all over the region have left regulators without the tools they need to protect public health and water quality. It is for this reason that neighboring states Maryland and New York have chosen a much more deliberate approach.
Think about it. In a few short years, we’ve gone from a nation heavily dependent on importing sources of energy to a nation poised to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer. We went from no fracking along the Eastern Seaboard to an irrational exuberance where even the President of the United States touts a century-long supply of our energy needs. This has resulted in fracking within a few hundred feet of school playgrounds and residential neighborhoods.
With this context in mind, the SRBC really taking seriously the Marcellus shale boom is a welcome first step. We expect to see increased support for state and federal agencies already studying hydraulic fracturing. The SRBC has also pledged to perform some baseline water quality analyses and identify drilling’s effect already to high quality streams.
Also encouraging is the SRBC’s recognition of the link between natural gas development and the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). We can best think of the TMDL as the daily pollution diet for the Chesapeake Bay. One major source of Bay pollution is the sediment runoff from the well pads. Now, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a permit to cover sediment and erosion, but it only applies to surface disturbances over five acres. Guess what? Most natural gas well pads require less than five surface acres and therefore remain largely unregulated.
Thus, the SRBC has a lot of work cut out for it. It’s so important to see them take a more active role in addressing water quality issues in the Basin affected by natural gas extraction. Hopefully, this vindicates some of the pressure fractivists around the region have placed on this rather obscure interstate regulatory body. And more importantly, we hope this development will shed some light on the Basin’s needs to maintain a robust plan to protect the Susquehanna. In the coming year, expect greater vigilance.