Six Wayne County gas wells elude Delaware River commission moratorium



At least six natural gas exploratory wells in Wayne County will not be impacted by a moratorium enacted by the Delaware River Basin Commission on Monday, allowing two natural gas companies operating there to take some steps forward with their joint development strategy.


The commission, an environmental regulatory agency with jurisdiction over water resources in the 13,539-square-mile watershed that includes nearly all of Wayne County, extended last's month permit moratorium on natural gas production wells to also include exploratory wells that had previously been exempt from regulation.


But the moratorium does not, however, apply to at least six exploratory wells in northern Wayne County that had already received approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection before Monday's moratorium deadline.


Both agencies provide overlapping environmental jurisdiction over the natural gas industry in Wayne County - which does not have any producing wells, unlike the large-scale extraction movement seen in Bradford and Susquehanna counties.


"In contrast to the thousands of wells projected to be installed in the basin over the next several years, the risk to basin waters posed by only the (exploratory) wells approved by Pennsylvania ... (is) comparatively small," said commission Executive Director Carol R. Collier in a statement.


Those wells - operated by Houston-based Newfield Corp., in a joint partnership with New York City-based Hess Corp. - will move ahead as planned and provide geological data for the drilling companies.


"We are continuing to drill our first exploratory well and will continue with our exploratory well program as we have already received permits for these wells," said Newfield spokesman Keith Schmidt.


Mr. Schmidt, whose company has leased approximately 100,000 acres in northern Wayne County in partnership with Hess Corp., said one exploratory well in Manchester Twp. is under development. Six Newfield exploratory wells were approved by the state environmental regulator before the moratorium deadline on Monday, according to state environmental regulator records available online.


Hess Corp. has three pending natural gas permit applications in Wayne County. It could not be verified Tuesday whether the state environmental regulator approved these permits before Monday's moratorium deadline.


Commission spokesman Clarke Rupert said the permit moratorium is in effect until the agency develops and adopts its own regulations for natural gas drilling and extraction in the watershed, which provides drinking water to an estimated 17 million people. That process may take at least six to 12 months.


"It would be extremely ambitious to have something in place by the end of the year," Mr. Rupert said.


Damascus Citizens for Sustainability derided the commission's decision to allow even a few exploratory wells to slip past the moratorium.


"It's interesting (the commission) suddenly sees the significance," said Pat Carullo, co-founder of the Wayne-Pike County-based environmental organization. "One problem (well) can ruin ... the whole aquifer."


Company officials have said they intended to drill 10 to 14 exploratory wells - which generally use less water than production wells and are not hydraulically fractured - in Wayne County this year. Production wells would follow next year.


Newfield's Mr. Schmidt said the company is "currently looking at all its options in regards to its exploratory program in Wayne County" in light of the commission's decision which would prevent additional exploratory wells in the watershed and put the brakes on production wells for some time.


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