Key Delaware River natural gas drilling vote postponed

NEW YORK Fri Nov 18, 2011 5:01pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A key vote to lift a ban on drilling for natural gas in the Delaware River Basin has been postponed, prompting claims of victory from environmentalists concerned about water contamination.

The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), which regulates water use across the 14,000-square-mile (36,260-square-km), gas-rich basin, suspended a vote scheduled for Monday amid speculation that its five members lacked the three votes needed to allow drilling.

"There are still some open issues that the commissioners have to work through," said DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert, who had no new date for the vote.

Earlier this month, the DRBC proposed ending the drilling moratorium in the basin that stretches across parts of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware and sits atop the United States' biggest natural gas deposit: the Marcellus Shale.

Under proposed new regulations, the DRBC said it will provide water for no more than 300 natural gas wells over 18 months, at which point they will reassess the rules.

The delay has frustrated drillers and the governor of industry-friendly Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, who is keen to develop the state's slice of the basin.

"Today's delay -- driven more by politics than sound science -- is a decision to put off the creation of much-needed jobs, to put off securing our energy independence, and to infringe upon the property rights of thousands of Pennsylvanians," Corbett said in a statement.

Concerns have arisen over fracking, the drilling technique used in the Marcellus to extract gas from shale by pumping millions of gallons of chemical-laced water into rock underground.

While fracking has led to huge increases in natural gas production in the United States, environmentalists say it contaminates water sources, sparking opposition to drilling in the Delaware Basin, which provides water for millions of homes across four states.

New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is suing the DRBC for not completing an environmental study on fracking before releasing its regulations.

"This delay further demonstrates that the proposed regulations for fracking in the Delaware River Basin are not ready to see the light of day," Schneiderman said in a statement on Friday.

Environmentalists welcomed the delay. The New Jersey Sierra Club said it was down to the commission not having enough votes to pass the regulations, calling it a "victory for clean drinking water".

The DRBC declined to comment on the voting.

The five commission members are the governors of the basin states and the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' North Atlantic Division, who represents the federal government.

New York, which has its own drilling ban in place, has intimated that it will vote against opening the basin to drilling, as has Delaware, while Pennsylvania is for it. It is unclear which way the Army Corps and New Jersey will vote.

(Additional reporting by Joan Gralla; Editing by Marguerita Choy, David Gregorio and Dale Hudson)

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