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Lawmakers may change hiring process for gas inspectors

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State lawmakers might change the way West Virginia hires oil and natural gas inspectors, after complaints that the current system favors industry and creates red tape.

On Thursday, members of a legislative committee focused on Marcellus Shale drilling regulations discussed abolishing the West Virginia Oil and Gas Inspectors' Examining Board, which administers tests and keeps a roster of inspectors.

The legislative committee, which is working to craft a House-Senate compromise on Marcellus regulations, has been making changes to a measure passed by the Senate earlier this year (SB424). Members met for about two hours Thursday, but did not vote on an amendment to abolish the board.

The state Department of Environmental Protection and advocates for surface owners want to get rid of the board. DEP says it's too bureaucratic, while the advocates say it gives the industry too much sway in who inspects well sites.

The board is supposed to be made up of five members, including the chiefs of DEP's oil and gas office and its water resources office. The governor appoints the other members: two industry representatives and one citizen to represent surface owners and environmental organizations.

The slot representing surface owners and environmentalists has been vacant for about five years. Both DEP and the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization submitted names to former Gov. Joe Manchin, but he never appointed anyone to the citizen post.

Lawmakers on Thursday heard from the two industry representatives, Bob Radabaugh and Stan Masoner.

They disagreed with the argument that they have too much power on the board, saying they only help with the testing and do not have a say in who gets hired. That decision is made by DEP.

"Our job is testing only," Radabaugh said. 

"We don't actually do the selection and hiring," Masoner said later.

After the meeting, Dave McMahon of the surface owners group said his organization still believes the industry has too much influence on the board. 

"Yes, the DEP gets to pick which people on the list they can hire, but the industry gets to say who gets on the list," McMahon said. 

The board also has some involvement in firing inspectors, McMahon added.

Legislative audits since the late 1990s have recommended abolishing the board, DEP General Counsel Kristin Boggs told the committee.

The state Division of Personnel could administer inspectors' tests without the board, Boggs said. The state spends $6,800 a year to run the board.

"It's an added layer of bureaucracy that doesn't add anything to the process," Boggs said.

Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said after the meeting that the industry is neutral on the issue.

The amendment discussed Thursday also would let the state change the amount of experience that inspectors need in the industry, which is six years.

Inspectors for other fields, such as mining, don't need six years of industry experience, Boggs said. 

But Radabaugh said on-the-job experience is valuable because "books only tell you so much."

Experience on drilling rigs is what truly teaches people, he said.

If the state changes the qualifications, "I'm afraid you're going end up with a whole different breed of inspector than what we have right now," he said.

Radabaugh also urged legislators to raise inspector pay.

There's been a lot of focus on hiring more inspectors to deal with the Marcellus boom, but "there's no need hiring new inspectors if you're not going take care of the ones you've got," he said.

State inspectors earn about $35,000 a year but can make twice that working on rigs.   

Lawmakers are in Charleston this week for a special session on redistricting and for regularly scheduled monthly interim meetings. The Marcellus committee might not meet again until next month.

Reach Alison Knezevich at alisonk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.

 


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