The increasing pressure environmental groups and state legislators put on four governors tasked to determine if a controversial gas drilling process known as "fracking" could sweep through the region may have prevented a critical vote from being held on Monday.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell wrote a letter Thursday to the members of the Delaware River Water Basin Commission (DRWBC) – comprised of the governors of Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Army Corps of Engineers – saying that he would vote against a regional agency plan to mine the Delaware watershed for natural gas. Thousands rallied in all four states to prevent and protest a vote.
Subsequently, Monday's vote was canceled and has not been rescheduled, according to the Delaware commission.
"Apparently Delaware and New York were going to vote 'No' and that left it to New Jersey and Pennsylvania," said New Jersey State Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-38), one of the most ardent opponents of fracking. "We knew Pennsylvania was going to vote 'yes' and probably New Jersey would have been voting 'yes', which means the federal government must have had some doubts."
Wagner, who was the prime sponsor of a bill in New Jersey's lower house to outright ban fracking, joined a crowd of 60 environmental activists and concerned citizens in Ridgewood's Van Neste Square on Thursday night for a rally against fracking.
It was one of dozens of rallies held in the affected states before word of the vote cancellation. Even with the cancellation, 1,000 people are expected to march on Trenton on Monday, according to 350.org organizer Matt Smith.
"With education and with people taking a stand, people do have the power to make a difference," Wagner stated in an interview Friday. "I congratulate all the environmental groups for working so hard to make sure this doesn't happen. It causes people to take notice and say, 'maybe this isn't good for the Delaware Water Basin, maybe this isn't good for the quality of our drinking water which will affect our health.'"
Fracking for natural gas has been touted, largely in television commercials sponsored by corporations with interests in drilling, as a way to safely and effectively extract natural gas from more than a mile underground, well below, they say, where drinking water comes from. There are vast quantities of natural gas beneath the Marcellus Shale, a 575-mile area in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York but not New Jersey, where the Utica Shale exists in a small corner of the northwest portion of the state.
Governor Chris Christie in August vetoed a bi-partisan bill passed in the state legislature to ban fracking in New Jersey.
Wagner was unsure if the legislature would be able to overturn the veto before the lame duck session ends in January 2012. A moratorium extension of five years to properly study environmental impacts would be a compromise she could accept, the assemblywoman said.
The governor's office refused to comment Friday, referring questions to the state DEP.
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese said it has requested the Delaware commission "ensure there are good and strict regulations in place."
Ragonese said the DEP's recommendations would be the stiffest in the country, though they're not nearly tough enough for detractors.
"Our recommendation included kind of a pilot program, a phased-in possibility which would allow for 30 pods to be constructed in the basin, so a small limited number which would operate for 18 months and then be assessed," Ragonese said.
He said dangers with 30 pods would be minimal at best.
"This would give us real solid data, some real science as to what impact it could be for fracking in the Delaware River Basin," he said. "As the Department of Environmental Protection, our No. 1 goal is the environment so we're concerned solely with protecting the water resources and the natural resources of the Delaware River basin."
Put simply, fracking is accomplished by using a pressurized fracking fluid to carve veins into shale rock deep in the earth. The mini-earthquake that results underground creates cracks around the veins, which results in the release of natural gas. The gas is then brought to the surface in the form of a liquid and is then separated.
As many as 500 chemicals are used in the process, environmentalists say. Fracking is exempted under federal Clean Air and Safe Drinking Act provisions.
The Delaware River provides drinking water to 15 million people in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The controversial drilling process has aroused the concern of environmental activists who say hydraulic fracturing will pollute groundwater, damage air quality and could lead to future earthquakes.
According to activist group Water Defense, New York and Pennsylvania are estimated to use more than 10 billion gallons of water over the next decade should the gas companies find support. The water would be drawn from the public's drinking sources, they say.
It's a concern of Harriet Shugarman, a Climate Educator for the Climate Reality Project.
"It's not okay to be allowed to be scared into thinking we need gas," Harriet Shugarman said Thursday. She added that the government should invest more in renewable energy as opposed to eyeing the controversial extraction method.
In hardscrabble Pennsylvania coal country residents are divided on the issue, according to an article in the New York Times Magazine. Some have reaped economic rewards by leasing their land to gas companies, a boon in a region with economic hardship. But reports of gas leaks, increasing reports of strange illnesses, sudden deaths of otherwise healthy animals and water quality concerns have also led to a backlash from citizens.
Although the vote will not come on Monday, environmentalists say New Jersey and other states are not out of the woods.
Edward Van Embden contributed to this report.