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Clock ticking on Marcellus drilling rules

Read more in the watchdog blog.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The co-chairman of a legislative committee working on tougher rules for Marcellus Shale gas drilling says time may be running out for lawmakers to get a measure passed in special session before the end of the year.

Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, is co-chairman of a House-Senate committee that's been working on the legislation since a Marcellus bill died at the end of the regular session in early March. Manchin has been trying to work out a compromise bill that would have industry support. Gov.-elect Earl Ray Tomblin has made that a condition for his calling a special session.

"We have come down to the wire," Manchin said in an interview this week. "I think the public really wants and deserves a bill."

Lawmakers scheduled an unusual Sunday morning committee meeting to try to work out four proposed amendments, including likely contentious language aimed at protecting and compensating surface landowners and at expanding the ability of state regulators to deny new drilling permits.

But after that meeting, Manchin says, committee members would need to approve the overall bill during a meeting Wednesday if they hope to get a special session scheduled to coincide with December interim meetings. Manchin said he's been told industry officials and some Senate committee members want to slow down that process.

"We're going to miss any chance of having a special session," Manchin said. "I'm deeply concerned, but cautiously optimistic."

Corky DeMarco, lobbyist for the West Virginia Oil and Gas Association, said his group isn't opposed to new legislation, but is concerned about where this particular bill is headed.

"We have always been interested in passing a bill that provides certainty, if it is a reasonable bill," DeMarco said Wednesday. "But there are some things in this we are diametrically opposed to."

Charlie Burd, lobbyist for the Independent Oil and Gas Association, agreed that "there are things in this bill that raise red flags" with his group's members.

"There are provisions that they added that do not make it business friendly," Burd said.

West Virginia business and political leaders have for several years been promoting a potential boom in Marcellus Shale gas drilling, saying it will provide a huge economic boost to the state.

But environmental groups have warned about impacts, and the state Department of Environmental Protection has agreed it needs more staff and tougher rules to regulate new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, techniques that involve much larger operations and more complex permits. Surface landowners from around the state have also told horror stories about having their property invaded and damaged by drilling operations. And new studies are questioning whether natural gas really has the greenhouse gas advantages over coal that have frequently been cited in the past.

Lawmakers have for at least three years failed to approve new DEP rules or pass tougher legislation to regulate the Marcellus drilling. Earlier this year, Tomblin ordered DEP to write emergency rules, but critics say they didn't go nearly far enough.

After legislation failed during this year's regular session, a committee chaired by Manchin and Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, began meeting monthly to try to work out a compromise. They started with a bill that passed the Senate this year, and have so far added more than two dozen amendments.

Major provisions of the bill would set new standards for gas well casings, increase permit fees to help add more state inspectors, establish a 650-foot buffer zone between wells and homes, require public notice of permit applications and force companies to disclose how many of the jobs created by the drilling boom go to West Virginians.

DeMarco said his group doesn't think lawmakers should be passing a Marcellus Shale-specific bill, and should instead focus any new restrictions on particular drilling techniques, not specific gas formations.

And DeMarco said that modern drilling is still evolving, so companies want lawmakers to be flexible in their approach, so the industry can change its operations without coming back to the Legislature for permission.

"You've got an evolving industry," DeMarco said. "Let's not make these things so definite that we have to come back time and time again."

Manchin said some language has already been significantly weakened to get industry support. For example, lawmakers had considered requiring a 750- or 1,000-foot buffer between homes and gas wells.

Manchin said he's had a difficult time getting industry officials to outline what language they would support, and only recently convinced them to put their concerns about proposed legislation in writing.

"They come to hearings and they say they want reasonable regulation, but we never hear what they think is reasonable," Manchin said. "We make changes to make them happy, and they're still not happy. You try to find a balance and the industry still won't support it."

Burd, though, said the industry is upset at being singled out with language that would require companies to disclose how many of their employees are from West Virginia and how many are from out of state.

Manchin said the language is justified, giving questions being raised by residents in gas-producing counties about whether local citizens are getting the new jobs being created by drilling.

"Why should we listen to some professor theorize about jobs when we can have the hard data about the jobs?" Manchin said. "If jobs are the reason why our people should be inconvenienced by roads and trucks and scarring of the land, why shouldn't we know how many jobs?"

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


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