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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.