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Panel approves bill, seeks Marcellus special session

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A special legislative committee on Wednesday approved a Marcellus Shale drilling bill and asked Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to call lawmakers into special session to take up the measure.

The joint House-Senate panel passed the bill on a voice vote, with only Sen. Karen Facemyer, R-Jackson, asking to be recorded as opposing it.

"We may not have a perfect bill, but we've worked hard to come up with a good bill," said Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, and co-chairman of the committee.

The fate of the bill remains unclear. Tomblin says he still needs to be sure there's a consensus behind it and at least one industry lobbyist says his group has major concerns about the proposed language.

Since a bill to more strictly regulate drilling in West Virginia's vast Marcellus Shale reserves died during the regular session in March, Manchin and Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, have led monthly joint committee meetings trying to come up with an acceptable bill.

Significant provisions of the bill would set new standards for gas well casings, increase permit fees to help add more state inspectors, establish a 625-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.

Facemyer said the legislation goes too far, sends a message that West Virginia is anti-business and needs to be slowed down so lawmakers can look at it more carefully during next year's regular session.

"We need to take our time and make sure we do this right," Facemyer said.

But Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said further delays could put off the date for getting additional Department of Environmental Protection inspectors until sometime in 2013.

"People are worried and one of the ways you allay those concerns is that you have staff available," Fleischauer said. "We've tried to craft a bipartisan solution and I think we've achieved a pretty good balance."

Jacqueline Proctor, communications director for Tomblin, said the governor and his staff still need to study the interim committee's bill "to determine what aspects of the proposed bill can be agreed upon and what changes are needed" before deciding on whether to call a special session.

Don Garvin, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, said that his organization is "guarded" in its support for the committee's bill.

Garvin said citizen groups want to see the bill improved with the addition of a permitting system for withdrawing water from state streams, regulations governing how drillers conduct seismic tests at potential drills sites, and tougher requirements for disposal of drilling pit wastes.

"Are there changes we'd like to see? Of course," Garvin said. "We would be OK with it, but we would still work to improve it."

Corky DeMarco, lobbyist for the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said his group remains strongly concerned about parts of the bill, especially the increase in permit fees that he said would "put nails in the coffin," as West Virginia drillers try to edge out other states for a share of the natural gas market.

"We don't want to make ourselves less competitive," DeMarco said.

West Virginia business and political leaders have for several years been promoting a potential boom in Marcellus Shale gas drilling, saying it would 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.

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


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