CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two meetings this week should determine whether West Virginia lawmakers will tackle Marcellus Shale drilling rules this year, but the main players involved in the months-long quest for compromise appear as divided as ever.
A special House-Senate committee plans to debate a final handful of amendments to its draft Marcellus bill Monday. The legislators will then likely decide Wednesday whether to endorse the measure.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has said he's ready to convene a special session for a Marcellus bill that can pass both chambers. But lingering disputes over the key issues that derailed legislation during this year's regular session -- permit fees, water protections, surface owner rights and in-state job creation, among others -- threaten to scuttle the latest effort.
"If the bill does not come out Wednesday, then in my opinion the chances of a special session this year is zero," said Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion and the committee's House chairman. He added, "It will depend on making sure that members are there, and it will depend on people wanting to get it done ... . If what [critics] want to do is talk the bill to death, then it will die."
Senate Co-Chair Doug Facemire sounded somewhat more optimistic, pinning the bill's chances on weaving any amendments approved Monday into the bill in time for consideration Wednesday. But the Braxton County Democrat also acknowledged the continuing disagreements among the industry, environmental advocates, and the owners of surface property at or near well sites and access roads.
"I told Delegate Manchin, at least we've accomplished one thing. We've not made anybody happy," Facemire said. "But I honestly believe that out of the 10 members of this committee, everybody's intent was to get the best bill that protects the environment and the residents while allowing the industry to get to work."
Tomblin also has concerns with the bill, Chief of Staff Rob Alsop said Sunday. As an example, Alsop cited a provision addressing the casing of a gas well's walls with cement to prevent leaks. Supporters of this language say it's borrowed from neighboring Pennsylvania, a leader in Marcellus drilling. Echoing an industry objection, Alsop said it does not allow for evolving technology.
"Given the kind of amendments that have been passed, we do believe there will be changes that need to be done," Alsop said.
Alsop also said that Tomblin is pleased with the committee's progress, and hopes to resolve his concerns with legislative leaders over the next couple of weeks -- if a final bill emerges.
Manchin had noted Friday that the committee loosened the cement casing provision from a detailed standard to an offering of guidance to regulators, but said that industry continues to oppose it. The divide over this provision typifies the status of the draft bill.
For more than a year, West Virginia has pursued regulations for developing its share of what's considered the nation's largest-known natural gas reservoir. The prehistoric rock formation sits a mile below the surface of several states. To tap the gas, operators usually drill wells horizontally and then blast the shale with a high-volume mix of water, sand and chemicals.