An oil company wants to suck one million gallons of water out of the West Branch of the Delaware River every day for a month — and will probably get permission to do so.
Is this the impact of the gas-drilling rush on trout fishing that many of us have worried about? Are blue-ribbon trout rivers about to be raided for water to run hydro-fracturing wells?
No. In fact, while this is the first gas well I’ve heard of that wants to use water from a top-quality trout stream for its operations, the proposal by Chesapeake Appalachia LLC doesn’t seem to pose much of a threat. It’s not the gas wells in the valleys, near the famous rivers, that we need to worry about — it’s the ones back in the hills, near the fragile headwaters, where so many wild trout are born.
Chesapeake Appalachia wants to tap the West Branch for “hydro-fracking,” a method of natural gas well-drilling that cracks shale deposits hundreds or thousands of feet underground with a highly pressurized mixture of water and dangerous, toxic chemicals.
The Delaware River Basin Commission is scheduled to consider its permit request at its July 15 meeting. It’s one of thousands of permits being sought by oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York — the region overlaying the Marcellus Shale and its fortune in natural gas.
The DRBC’s staff recommends approval of the permit.
A million gallons a day sounds like a lot, but it’s in fact less than two cubic feet per second. The West Branch can spare it.
Relatively small withdrawals from large rivers are not what’s dangerous about drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. The real threats are these:
-- The potential damage to sensitive, upland headwaters that are vital spawning grounds for wild trout. Most gas wells will be near small headwaters, not big rivers like the West Branch, and taking a million gallons a day out of a small spawning tributary could cause serious damage.
-- The construction associated with natural gas drilling. Building well-pads and heavy trucking roads can cause sedimentation and warm-water run-off, again with the potential for serious damage to headwaters, if not done properly.
-- The chemicals used in hydro-fracking. The energy industry was specifically exempted from having to report them by Congress and the Bush administration in 1995. The industry claims its hydro-fracking formulas are trade secrets.
The DRBC is scheduled only to consider Chesapeake’s request for the water withdrawal on July 15. The actual gas well operation also requires the DRBC’s permission, and will be taken up separately.
Gas leases are irresistible windfalls for people in the Appalachians, many of whom have struggled economically all their lives. It’s hard to blame them for wanting to finally make some profit from their properties.
And it is true that no matter how green we eventually become, we still need fossil fuel energy, at least in the short term, and we’re better off using our own than buying it from places like Iran.
But the natural gas industry is not in the trout stream protection business. We need to rely on agencies like the DRBC, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency to watch these operations like hawks and make sure every possible precaution is taken.
They don’t make trout streams anymore. We need to protect the ones we have, especially their headwaters.