Gas drilling stays in limbo in large slice of northern Pa.
DAMASCUS — Standing on a hilltop above his Wayne County cattle farm, Bob Rutledge surveys rolling hills and a sea of green grass.
His gaze falls to the Earth beneath his worn brown boots, where he believes more than a mile below the surface lies an opportunity — natural gas.
But Rutledge, whose ragged blue jeans betray his love for hard work, will never know whether that opportunity can be realized unless an obscure regulatory agency lifts its ban on drilling in the Delaware River basin.
“To have it right at our fingertips and have it actually happening just 30 miles away is disappointing,” said Rutledge, 48, of Damascus, whose ancestors began settling here a few years before the Civil War.
While gas drilling thrives throughout the state, a large swath of northeast Pennsylvania still remains off-limits.
Environmentalists are pleased, but worried the commission may lift the moratorium.
Landowners, who want their land developed, are becoming more frustrated and fear gas companies will pull out.
Rutledge heads the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, which banded together nearly 1,300 families to lease tens of thousands of acres for development to two drilling companies, Hess Corp. and Newfield Exploration Co.
Those companies, which partnered to explore the potential of the Marcellus shale in Wayne County, have exercised a provision in their lease with alliance that allows them to halt lease payments to landowners until the commission lifts the ban.
“It just aggravates me, because we went through a lot of effort and spent a lot of time,” said Rutledge, whose 500-acre farm is under lease.
Rutledge said he believes gas development would have a huge economic impact. Most of northern Wayne County is jobless wilderness and farmland.
If given the economic boom, a “farmer can work with something else than 50-year-old equipment,” he said.
“We got our beautiful scenery, but we're living in poverty.”
Politics is a real aspect to the battle over environmental and mineral rights concerns in the watershed, where much of the fight consists of behind-the-scenes negotiations and bickering.
Then, there is the difficulty of trying to get five governments with vastly different constituencies to work together on a complicated and divisive issue.
The governors of Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York and a federal representative from the Army Corps of Engineers make up the five-member river basin commission board, which has the power to give the go-ahead or bar drilling with a single vote.
“It's not a simple process to develop a regulatory framework for something as complicated as natural gas drilling and have five governments work out the particulars,” said commission spokesman Clarke Rupert.
A product of the Kennedy Administration, the commission is charged with protecting water quality and quantity in the basin, which provides drinking water to millions of people in New York City as well as numerous communities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
At the time the commission announced the moratorium, it said the move was necessary to allow for development of its own environmental safety regulations over the industry.
Meanwhile, more than 100,000 acres leased to gas companies in Wayne County cannot be drilled to extract gas.
Pike and Monroe counties and small portions of Lackawanna and Luzerne counties are subject to the moratorium, although leasing has not been as extensive in these areas.