Opposition building to drilling in the Delaware basin

TRENTON – The state’s leading environmentalists, the Delaware Riverkeeper and other groups are stepping up the pressure on Gov. Chris Christie, the chief executives of surrounding states, and the federal government to reject an energy industry push to drill for natural gas in the Delaware River basin using a controversial process that fractures shale deep underground.

This afternoon the groups delivered some 70,000 signatures to Christie’s office opposing the move. That action followed a Statehouse press conference where opponents condemned the practice – commonly known as “fracking” – as posing a real threat to the drinking water of 15 million people who draw their water from the basin, including more than 3 million New Jerseyans.

“Thousands of wells” for hydraulic fracturing, says Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, “would result in devastation to our water resources and our communities.”

The Riverkeeper called on the governor to cast the state’s vote against fracking in the 13,500-square-mile watershed.

“Any other path is a conscious path of doom to our river and our communities,” van Rossum added.

The Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel said the process uses some 600 chemicals, many toxic, to help fracture the gas-producing shale down below.

Allowing the drilling, Tittel maintained, “would unleash the frackenstein monster on the Delaware River basin.”

But the oil industry accuses the environmentalists of using “scare tactics” to whip up opposition.

“The exaggerations that obviously are being presented go to the worst unfounded fears of the environmental community,” said James Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council, an industry trade and lobbying group. “It’s a technology that’s been enhanced,” Benton said of fracking, “so that it’s done in a safe, environmentally sensitive way.”

But van Rossum and others today said the process isn’t environmentally safe or sound and pointed to blown wells and spoiled acquifers in places where drilling is currently being done, such as Wyoming.

Benton also says the drilling would create jobs and help wean the nation off its dependence on foreign oil. “We truly need some positive contributions to our domestic energy security,” he said.

But the opponents don’t see it that way.

Chuck Gentle Moon DeMund, a chief of the Lenape Native American tribe, said the Delaware has been at the heart of his people’s existence for thousands of years. And he said through a tortured modern history that’s included brushes with Dutch and French traders, English settlers, removal and genocide, that fracking ranks worst among them all.

“No matter what happened, the river has always been the key to our society,” said DeMund. He said it’s always been treated by the Lenape “in a good and sacred way.”

“You can’t keep ripping into the earth and punishing the earth and not expecting repercussions,” said DeMund.

The environmentalists say their coalition also includes sportsmen, small-business owners, and college students. They said they’ll have a large contingent at the War Memorial for next week’s meeting.

Tittel says a vote by Christie or his commission designee to allow fracking would be a gift to Tea Party conservatives and the billionaire Koch brothers.

“That’s what the concern is,” Tittel says. “It’s about his national profile versus New Jersey’s drinking water.”

The governor isn’t showing his cards as to which way he may be leaning.

“We’re consulting with the other states, and the DRBC, with Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York,” Christie told reporters at a press conference last week. “And we’ll make our decision in due course. I’ve been consulting with the Counsel’s Office, the Authorities Unit, the DEP and the BPU. And we’ll make a decision in due course, but I’m not ready to announce that yet.”

The moratorium against fracking has been in place since 2009. New Jersey lawmakers voted last June to ban the practice in the state, but Christie conditionally vetoed the measure to instead put in place a moratorium while the issue is studied.

In addition to Christie, the basin commission’s voting members are the governors of New York, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, as well as a representative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Opposition building to drilling in the Delaware basin