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Marcellus challenges outlined

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Development of West Virginia's vast Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves poses potential environmental, social and economic problems that state officials are just beginning to consider, experts said during a daylong workshop here Friday.

Lawmakers are finalizing new legislation to try to limit environmental damage, but seem unlikely to take steps to monitor whether local workers get most of the new jobs, officials said.

Regulators are putting in place new permit requirements, but are not focused on off-site issues like traffic or damage to local roads, they said.

Congress exempted modern drilling techniques -- known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- from key water pollution and hazardous waste statutes, experts said. And questions continue to grow about whether natural gas greenhouse emissions really provide the long-term benefits over coal-fired power, they said.

"This is a tremendous opportunity, but it also a tremendous risk," said Hannah Chang, an attorney who follows gas-drilling issues for the public interest law firm Earthjustice. "Hazards emerge at every step of this process."

Chang was among two-dozen speakers brought together by the West Virginia University College of Law to discuss challenges related to increased natural gas drilling in the state. The law school's new Center for Energy and Sustainable Development organized the event, called, "Drilling Down on Regulatory Challenges: Balancing Preservation and Profitability in the Development of Shale Gas Resources."

On Thursday night, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. delivered a keynote address in which he repeated his complaints about Obama administration efforts to more strictly regulate energy production, including new proposals for air and water standards on drilling activities. And at lunchtime on Friday, a gas industry lawyer delivered a second keynote address about the importance of natural gas to the nation's energy supply.

Regulators from various states joined Manchin's criticism of any U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initiatives on gas drilling, and various industry speakers touted Marcellus drilling as a huge potential windfall for the state. But sprinkled through the agenda were law professors, other experts and citizen advocates who raised questions about the pace and size of the drilling boom.

Joshua Fershee, a law professor at the University of North Dakota, said that a boom in gas drilling has brought with it both positives and negatives for his state.

Lots of jobs have been created, Fershee said, but drilling communities are still poorer than other parts of the state. Pay at even fast-food jobs has gone up, but rental-housing costs have tripled and crime has increased.

"It's creating social problems or social conditions that need to be addressed," Fershee said. "It's creating a tremendous stress on the infrastructure."

Stuart Gruskin, former deputy commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, said his state decided to "think first and drill later." New York is finalizing a three-year study of modern drilling techniques to determine their impacts and come up with rules to limit them. There isn't a formal moratorium on permits, but New York law delays new drilling projects while the study is being performed.

"We wanted to address the impacts before we started drilling," Gruskin said.

Randy Huffman, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said West Virginia officials never really considered stopping new permits while it came up with better regulatory tools.

"We felt like we could use the existing rules to regulate this," Huffman said. "We've managed to get by."

The number of Marcellus drilling permits issued by his state agency has gone from none in 2006 to about 500 this year. Those permits are more complicated, as are inspections of these wells. But DEP has not yet seen increased staffing or other resources to go with the increased workload.

Huffman said his organization is working to implement new emergency rules on some aspects of drilling, but that the agency isn't tackling issues like impacts on local roads, and isn't sure other things -- like buffer zones from homes -- are really environmental issues for DEP to manage.

Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, said a committee he leads is trying to finalize legislation that would protect the public and the environment, but also foster growth in the industry.

"We're trying to find that happy medium," he said.

But Manchin said that he's been amazed at industry opposition to an amendment to require gas companies to report payroll information that would show what share of their workers are from local communities or from out of state.

"It seems like the industry is just dead set against it, and I just don't understand why," Manchin said. "I think these are things the people of West Virginia have a right to know."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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