Most Fracking Sites Near NJ Would Be Unaffected by New Federal Regulations

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S Department of Interior rolled out a new set of regulations on fracking that would affect fracking drilling taking place on federally-owned lands, and leave fracking operations on private property untouched. 

Federally-owned fracking sites fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management. In total, the federal agency governs 100,000 of the roughly 1.1 million fracking sites in the country. 

Fracking involves pumping high volumes of chemicals, water and sand deep underground, creating an explosive force that breaks apart the rocks below, ultimately releasing natural gas. 

The regulations, which were announced Friday, March 20, are set to take effect 90 days after they are officially released on March 26. The laws would be the first of any full-fledged attempt by the federal government to regulate fracking. 

One of the rules under the program would be a requirement for drilling companies to encase their wells in cement, should the well be in an environmentally-sensitive area that could leak to the local groundwater. Testing of the cement barriers would be required.

Another rule that would imposed before a fracking well can come online for official use states that it must undergo a stress test.

Companies would also be required to publicly disclose the chemicals used in a fracking extraction within 30 days of the operations. Under these guidelines, the public would also be able to access the condition and details of the wells.

Still, the regulations were unable to gain the support of some of the more ardent critics of the controversial practice.

“We do think it’s a missed opportunity and continue to wonder why the Interior Department isn’t putting conservation as its top objective,” Bill Snape, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told the D.C-based newspaper The Hill, “It continues to give away favors to the oil and gas industry on our lands.” 

Jim Walsh, a regional director for national non-profit Food & Water Watch, which has an office in New Brunswick, described the regulations as "toothless."

Walsh said that the new rules would do "virtually nothing to migitate the inherent hazards of fracking to human health, the environment, and climate change."

"The only way to mediate these risks is to not halt fracking on federal lands now," Walsh added, further writing that Congress should ban fracking entirely. 

While fracking drilling has not occurred in New Jersey, the neighboring state of Pennsylvania is home to 7,788 wells, operated by 66 different entities.  Many of the fracking sites near New Jersey are situated to the central and north east of the state, in a region called the Delaware Water Basin. 

The Delaware Water Basin stretches roughly 330 miles from upstate New York to the Atlantic Ocean. Roughly 8.7 billion gallons of water are used in the New York metro area. 

Many of the fracking operations are situated in the Marcellus Shale Formation, which runs underneath the Appalachian mountain range. The shale is on average 5,000 to 7,000 feet below the surface, and is estimated to hold 490 trillion cubic feet of gas.

A large portion of the Pennsylvania-based fracking sites are privately owned and operated, making them exempt to the new regulations. 

One of the companies with fracking in the Delaware Water Basin, Chesapeake Appalachia, has 835 active wells, with 428 violations so far, totaling in $1.45 million in fines.

Another company operating in the area, Cabot Oil & Gas Corps, runs 489 active wells, with 480 violations, and has been assessed $379,916 in fines.

Supporters of fracking have argued that the state, as a result of an abundance of natural gas, would enjoy significantly lower electric rates.

“The influx of Marcellus shale gas has paid tremendous benefits for the consumers of New Jersey,” John Scarlata, Vice President of Gas Supply for PSE&G Power, told The Bergen Record.

“We have the lowest retail rate in the state, and that’s due to the lower cost of Marcellus gas.”

PSE&G had previously obtained a significant portion of its gas from Louisiana, Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. 

New Jersey itself has nowhere near the same level of natural gas, and as a result, there has been no drilling in the state.

Still, public debate over fracking is nothing new to New Jersey. Middlesex County became the first county to ban fracking in 2013.

In August, 2014, Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have banned the treatment, discharge, disposal, and storage of fracking byproducts. 

The bill, S1041/A2108, was the second attempt at a fracking legislation made during the Christie administration.  Previously, legislators had overwhelmingly supported a statewide ban on the practice.

Both times, the bills passed but died at the Governor's desk. 

"At that time, I explained the lack of frackable shale in New Jersey meant that the bill's ban on fracking waste 'from any state' necessarily meant that the bill intended to embargo out-of-state waste," Christie wrote in his veto message. 

"Instead of protecting from New Jersey from being dumped on, he sided with his national political ambitions," Jeff Tittel, President of the state chapter of Sierra Club, told The Star-Ledger.

"He basically said to New Jersey, 'Get fracked.'