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."