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Ideas differ on Marcellus Shale in governor's race

CHARLESTON, W.Va -- Candidates for West Virginia's special gubernatorial election say West Virginia should capitalize on the vast wealth the Marcellus Shale natural gas field has to offer, but how they would manage this modern-day gas rush varies.

The mile-deep Marcellus Shale is believed to hold trillions of cubic feet of gas. An industry study conducted by West Virginia University reports that during 2009 the Marcellus field generated $2.3 billion in business volume to the overall economy and $14.5 million in sales, income and business franchise taxes. The benefit is expected to multiply many times over as the field is more fully developed.

But tapping the wealth has raised concerns on several fronts, from well spacing, advance notice to property owners, road damage and permit fees, to the potential effects drilling would have on area water supplies.

Since legislation regulating Marcellus development failed to clear the Legislature earlier this year, candidates running for the May 14 primary have seized on the opportunity to comment and present their own plans on how to best control and profit from drilling the field that stretches from West Virginia to New York.

Legislation cleared the Senate, but didn't make it through the House of Delegates. The Legislature's failure to enact legislation was noted by several gubernatorial candidates.

Given the complexities of the issue, House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, said the matter should be dealt with in a special session so it could be the sole issue attracting lawmakers' attention. Thompson is one of six Democrats seeking his party's nomination next month.

Before holding any session, Thompson said he would bring regulators, drillers, landowners and others together to hash out a comprehensive legislative package. It would, he said, require some "give-and-take and compromise" to create such legislation.

Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson would seek a moratorium "until all the studies are in and it's been proven that there will not be the health impact that we're seeing with mountaintop removal and our water quality."

Johnson said the state has an opportunity to be pre-emptive with Marcellus Shale and to make sure that the drilling benefits the state and its residents. The state shouldn't be overly concerned that regulations would drive drillers away. "The bottom line is they will always come back" because the gas just gets more valuable the longer it's underground.

Eastern Panhandle Republican Larry Faircloth is concerned about landowners' rights. Faircloth told the Huntington Herald-Dispatch he would submit legislation to protect property rights and the quality of water systems.

Speaking to the same paper, Republican "Bill" Clark wants to see the state set a severance tax that is competitive with other states also drilling the Marcellus.

Faircloth and Clark are two of eight Republicans seeking their party's nomination. Of the eight, Cliff Ellis, Mitch Carmichael and Clark Barnes did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment. Democrat Arne Moltis did not mention the Marcellus Shale in his interview with the AP.

Former Republican secretary of state Betty Ireland and acting Senate president Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, share Johnson's concern over damaging the state's water systems.

Drilling to unleash the gas trapped more than a mile below the surface requires a method called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Fluids are pumped underground at high pressure to crack the shale so the gas can escape. The method uses millions of gallons of water and fluids that some argue can contaminate local water supplies.

Ireland said any proposed solution should use research and development and create a predictable regulatory process.

Taking it a step further, Kessler wants to create a West Virginia Future Fund that would take 25 percent from the severance tax collected from natural gas extracted in Marcellus Shale and deposit it in an endowment fund that couldn't be touched for 20 years. He said Alaska created a similar program using oil revenues and the state now has billions in the fund and no state income tax.

State Treasurer John Perdue said he would like to earmark revenues from Marcellus production for the state's roads. Perdue criticized the legislative leadership for not passing Marcellus regulations during the recent 60-day session.

Republican Mark Sorsaia called the Legislature's inability to deal with Marcellus Shale "another failure" and alleged that unregulated drilling is occurring in the state as a result.

Fellow Democrat and current Secretary of State Natalie Tennant also wants to use an unspecified portion of the severance tax revenue for improving three areas: Math and science education, community and small business development, and research and development of new technologies. Tennant echoed Perdue in criticizing the legislative leadership's lack of Marcellus regulation in its regular session.

Republican businessman Bill Maloney, a driller, said the state needs to focus on educating the next generation of workers who will work in the Marcellus fields.

"Marcellus is going to be huge," he said. "It's a pretty high-tech job running these $15 million Marcellus rigs and we need to train our work force to be with the industries of the future."

Mountain Party candidate Bob Henry Baber also wants the state's work force trained to work the Marcellus. Baber wants to see the state's vocational schools training their students to fill the needs of the state, such as being trained to work Marcellus drilling rigs.

Developing the Marcellus fields is more than just drilling. Kessler and acting governor Earl Ray Tomblin said West Virginia should take advantage of the spin-off industries that could be created.

Tomblin and Kessler said developing the Marcellus could aid the state's ailing chemical industry. Ethane, removed from methane, or natural gas, could be converted to ethylene -- a building block for the plastics and chemical industries.

Several candidates said building a plant in West Virginia to convert ethane into ethylene would be key to that development.

The May 14 primary and the Oct. 4 general elections are being held to fill the unexpired term of former Democrat Gov. Joe Manchin. Manchin was elected to the U.S. Senate last year to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd.


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