A landowners' group in northeastern Pennsylvania is threatening to sue the Delaware River Basin Commission over its three-year moratorium on natural gas exploration and production, saying the ban has imposed a heavy financial toll on thousands of people who leased their land for drilling, only to see the energy boom pass them by.
The Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, one of the largest landowners' groups in Pennsylvania with more than 1,300 families and businesses, said in a letter to the commission's executive director that it will file a lawsuit unless the agency either schedules a vote on regulations that would allow drilling to begin, or steps aside and drops any plan to regulate the practice.
The five-member basin commission is scheduled to meet Tuesday and Wednesday in Wilmington, Del. Gas drilling is not on the agenda.
"The commission is allowing itself to be held hostage by the media and an emotion-driven anti-drilling community made up mostly of people from outside our region and by activist staffers within the DRBC who are exercising their personal biases," the property owners' group said in its letter, released late Tuesday.
The basin commission — which has representatives from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government — monitors and regulates the water supply of more than 15 million people in the Delaware River watershed, including Philadelphia and half the population of New York City. It imposed a moratorium on Marcellus Shale drilling in the Delaware watershed in 2010. It abruptly shelved draft drilling regulations in late 2011.
The panel has jurisdiction because the drilling process will require the withdrawal of huge amounts of water from the watershed's streams and rivers. The commission has also cited the potential for groundwater and surface water contamination.
"The commission understands (the property owners') frustration over the length of time of the ongoing rulemaking process. However, the scientific and policy questions that the commission must resolve in the course of preparing natural gas regulations are extremely complex, and the stakes for the larger region are high," agency spokeswoman Kate Schmidt said via email Wednesday.
"The commission is committed in good faith to completing this process as soon as is reasonably possible in a manner that serves the best interests of all the basin's water users," she said.
Farmers and other landowners say drilling will bring jobs and prosperity, chafing at what they see as unwarranted regulatory foot-dragging by the commission. Pennsylvania's pro-drilling Republican governor, Tom Corbett, wrote to the panel last week to complain about the lack of natural gas development in the state's northeastern tip, saying the moratorium has depressed economic growth in the region and deprived landowners of their property rights.
Drilling opponents, meanwhile, contend that large-scale gas exploration so close to crucial waterways and renowned fisheries invites catastrophe. Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hanger, formerly Pennsylvania's top environmental regulator, urged the DRBC this week to keep the moratorium in place because he said the Corbett administration is providing inadequate oversight of the natural gas industry.
In its letter to DRVC, the property owners' group warned of a range of unintended consequences if natural gas development is not allowed to proceed. The landowners negotiated a master lease with Hess Corp. and Newfield Exploration Co. that contains important environmental protections, and if Hess and Newfield terminate the lease and leave the area, the region could be targeted by "wildcat companies with boilerplate leases and shoddy operations," the letter said. Several larger property owners say they could be forced to heavily timber their land or subdivide it for residential and commercial development "so they and their families can keep going financially," the letter said.
Peter Wynne, the landowners' spokesman, said it hasn't been determined whether the group would file suit in state or federal court.