Conserve Wildlife Blog

Fracking in the Delaware River Basin

December 13th, 2011

The Potential Impact to our Natural Resources

by Stephanie Egger, Wildlife Biologist

Figure 1: A diagram of how the hydraulic fracturing process works to extract natural gas

Many residents of New Jersey may have heard about hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus Shale and the potential ecological  impacts to the Delaware River Basin. The following provides an overview of the process of hydraulic fracturing and impacts to our natural resources in New Jersey.

The Mar­cel­lus Shale is sed­i­men­tary rock buried thou­sands of feet under the ground.  It extends from upstate New York south through Penn­syl­va­nia and to West Vir­ginia and west to parts of Ohio.  The nat­ural gas in the shale is trapped in tiny spaces and fis­sures within the rock.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking uses high-pressure pumps to inject a mix of water, sand, and chemicals into drilled wells that will fracture the shale rock to open cracks and release natural gas (Figure 1).  A well can be repeatedly fracked and each gas field incorporates many wells.  The process takes an enormous amount of water using an average of 4.5 million gallons of water to frack a well and a well can potentially be fracked up to 18 times.  Many chemicals are used in this process, some of which are known to be toxic and known carcinogens (e.g. benzene, glycol ethers).  Some chemicals are unknown because they are still considered proprietary by the industry.  Many of the chemicals cannot biodegrade so if released into the air or water they are there to stay.

Marcellus Shale has already been fracked in part of Pennsylvania; however future industry plans are geared to frack shale lands within the Delaware River Basin which is comprised of four states:  Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware (Figure 2).

Impacts to Natural Resources

The Delaware River Basin supports successful populations of fish, shellfish, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.  As part of the Delaware River Basin, the streams and rivers flowing through New Jersey support fish and wildlife that are important ecologically and economically to our communities.  Previous fracking projects have caused explosions, spills, and released toxic waste polluting the air, streams, and aquifers killing fish and other wildlife.  The toxic waste can include radioactive material which is unable to be removed by traditional waste water plants and if released into the Delaware River Basin could bioaccumulate in the food chain and be a threat to many aquatic and terrestrial wildlife species.  Fracking operations also require several million gallons of water, which must be withdrawn from nearby wells, lakes, rivers or industrial or municipal systems, potentially leaving insufficient water for wildlife in some areas.

Figure 2. The Marcellus Shale as it overlaps the Delaware River Basin in New Jersey.

Wildlife can be directly harmed by drinking polluted waters from streams and creeks.  Waste water impoundments or other waste pits can kill wildlife such as mammals, birds, and insects that mistake it as a source of fresh water because these pits are normally not covered.  Migratory birds may land on it and be coated with toxic fluids or die from the inhalation of the toxic chemical waste.

Reduced and fragmented habitat for wildlife can occur with the clearing of thousands of acres of forests.  Numerous studies in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Montana show that the construction of access roads, well pads, and pipelines displaced wildlife such as pronghorn, elk, mule deer, and sage grouse forcing them into less suitable habitats, impacting breeding, foraging, and increasing susceptibility to predation.  Clearing forests and moving construction equipment and other machinery into multiple areas may also enhance the spread of wildlife and plant diseases and invasive species.

There are many Federally and State-listed species that occur in the Delaware River Basin (Delaware River Keeper, River Values Report, 2010).  In New Jersey, one species that is of great importance is the Federally and State-listed (endangered) dwarf wedgemussel (Alasmidonta heterodon) in which the largest remaining populations of dwarf wedgemussels exists in the Upper Delaware watershed (Sussex and Warren Counties). The presence of dwarf wedge mussel indicates a clean water source of well-oxygenated, unpolluted water.  The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) is another important aquatic species that depends on the Delaware River Basin and also acts as a host for the mussel (Elliptio complanata), supporting one of the largest mussel populations in the Upper Delaware.  Elliptio contributes enormously to the water quality of the Delaware River Basin by filtering six times the Delaware’s average daily summer flow.  The status of the American eel pursuant to the Endangered Species Act is currently under review.  Eels, mussels, fish, and other aquatic life can suffer from fracking by direct contamination of the water or increased sedimentation from the clearing of nearby habits for the well pads or constructed access roads to the pads.

Facts on Fracking
  • As part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from being regulated pursuant to the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 (SWDA).  The SWDA authorizes the EPA to regulate injection wells in order to protect underground sources of drinking water.  If hydraulic fracturing were not excluded, the SWDA would require the oil and natural gas industry to disclose the chemicals it mixes with the water and sand to pump underground, but many of the chemicals are considered proprietary.  The industry is also excluded from several regulations under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.  For more information of the oil and gas industry’s exclusions and exemptions to major environmental statutes see here.


  • The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (H.R. 2766, S. 1215) (also known as the FRAC Act) was introduced to Congress 2009.  The bill would have reversed the exemption for hydraulic fracturing pursuant to the SDWA and regulated the oil and natural gas recovery process under the Underground Injection Control Program. It would require the industry to fully divulge chemicals used during fracking.  The FRAC Act was reintroduced in Congress this year.


  • In 2010, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) released draft natural gas development regulations.  Opponents argue that the draft regulations do not address cumulative impacts from the numerous wells on headwaters, wetlands, and waters and the cumulative impacts of multiple well pads, access roads, and water withdrawals.  In addition, the current draft regulations not set limits on gas and may be inadequate to protect the streams and rivers of the Delaware River Basin.  Full disclosure to the public of the chemicals used in the fracking process is not required in the draft DRBC regulations.
For More Information on the DRBC draft regulations or the Delaware River Basin go to:

Delaware River Basin Commission – Draft Natural Gas Development Regulations

Delaware River Keeper


CWFNJ does not support hydraulic fracturing, especially as it is currently regulated, because of the direct and indirect impacts it can have on the the natural resources of the Delaware RiverBasin.  Hydraulic fracturing, with the current regulations that govern it, is an incompatible practice that can jeopardize wildlife in New Jersey.  

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2 Responses to “Fracking in the Delaware River Basin”

  1. Ben says:

    Very informative post Steph! Clearly hydraulic fracturing should NOT be exempted from adhering to the SWDA. Is there an online petition to get these companies to disclose what they use in fracking?

  2. stephanie.egger says:

    There are quite a few onine petitions. One I believe was through, but it needs 25,000 signatures to be considered. I’ll send some your way.

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