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Legislative panel adds final Marcellus amendments

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A House-Senate committee pursuing rules for drilling into West Virginia's share of the Marcellus Shale finished drafting its bill Monday but won't decide whether to advance it to the full Legislature until Wednesday.

The lawmakers added a final handful of amendments to the bill, meant to provide oversight for developing the rich natural gas reserve.

One aims to encourage drillers to reach voluntary agreements on compensation and land access with the owners of the surface property that would host a well. In such cases, the operator may have obtained the mineral rights through separate owners. Another amendment Monday sets qualifications for state gas field inspectors.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has said he will convene a special session for a Marcellus bill, if it appears it could pass. But the committee's House chairman isn't ruling out seeking federal help if the nearly yearlong effort to craft the regulatory measure falls short.

The West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association and the state's Independent Oil and Natural Gas Operators have each written the committee to outline several objections with the draft bill. Officials with those groups did not respond to requests for comment.

Those concerns include proposed permit fees of $10,000 to drill an initial well and $5,000 for each one added to the site. That and other provisions would increase an operator's costs in a competitive arena, WVONGA Executive Director Corky DeMarco said in advance of Monday's meeting.

"The investment dollars that will come to West Virginia from publicly traded companies have the potential of going someplace else," DeMarco told The Associated Press on Friday.

DeMarco also said the committee has shown a lack of confidence in the state Department of Environmental Protection, which regulates gas drilling and would carry out any measure passed by the Legislature.

"I trust DEP to understand the industry," he told AP.

Unlike for traditional wells, operators drill horizontally to tap the Marcellus shale. They also blast the rock with large amounts of water mixed with chemicals and sand. This practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has prompted concerns regarding both the quantity and quality of area water supplies.

Tomblin Chief of Staff Rob Alsop also said earlier that the governor shares some of the industry's disagreements with the bill.

"There are some provisions of the bill that give us some concern," Alsop said Sunday. "We hope to work over the next couple weeks with the co-chairs and legislative leaders to come to a resolution."

This year's regular session ended in March without a Marcellus regulatory bill, after a pair of dueling proposals stalled. At Tomblin's order, the DEP has since issued an emergency rule that covers some aspects of Marcellus drilling and well operations. But agency officials also say they need more revenues to hire the additional inspectors and office staff needed to oversee the Marcellus field.


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