CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Long before most West Virginians had ever heard the words "Marcellus Shale," outside auditors were warning that the state's oil and gas regulatory agency was greatly underfunded and severely understaffed.
In December 1993, a review by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission warned that lack of funding and a shortage of inspectors were among the chronic problems facing the state Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Oil and Gas.
"The OOG does not have enough inspectors or funding to fully meet its statutory mandate," said the 98-page review report, written by a team of regulators from other states, industry officials and environmental group representatives.
A decade later, another outside examination found that little had changed. The state oil and gas office still "does not have enough inspectors or funding to fully meet its statutory mandate," said a 110-page report issued in January 2003.
Lawmakers are considering a proposal for another outside study of West Virginia's oil and gas regulatory system, but they have yet to implement important recommendations from prior reviews over the last two decades.
Today, just 19 state inspectors police thousands of natural gas wells across West Virginia. That's just four more than DEP had two decades ago, before the race to tap the Marcellus Shale's vast reserves greatly increased and complicated the inspection force's workload.
"The best written rule is no good if you don't have enforcement, if you don't have inspectors in the field overseeing the operations," said Don Garvin, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council.
DEP inspectors are supposed to examine drilling operations at seven key points in the process, to monitor things like well-casing construction, pit waste disposal and site reclamation. But agency officials admit that doesn't always happen.
Overworked staffers have to prioritize those inspections with increasing numbers of citizen complaints, checking on abandoned wells, and wrestling with the growing complexity of horizontal drilling and advanced hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, DEP officials say.
"It was likely only due to our financial ability to allow significant amounts of overtime hours to be worked in the field that we were in a position to provide the regulatory oversight that was conducted," DEP said earlier this year in an internal report on the oil and gas office's workload and budget. "Our current financial condition is bleak and while overtime is being approved it is at a lower level."
Last year, the state dedicated $3.1 million to running the DEP's oil and gas division. That's 40 percent more than the division's 1994 budget, but it's also barely enough to keep up with inflation, according to a Gazette analysis of state financial data.
Still, increased funding for oil and gas inspections and permit reviews remains one of the major sticking points that could again block passage of any legislation to reform oil and gas regulatory requirements. Major industry lobby groups oppose significant permit fee hikes included in the bill, even though the current language calls for smaller fees than DEP Secretary Randy Huffman himself had proposed earlier this year.
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.
During a U.S. Senate hearing on Monday, Tomblin general counsel Kurt Dettinger said the Marcellus "presents tremendous economic opportunities for West Virginia and other states." Staffers for Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., handed out media packets from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, touting the potential for thousands of spin-off jobs, especially if one or more "cracker" plants are built to extract process natural gas byproducts.
Environmental and citizen groups have warned about impacts, both to the state's water and land and to homeowners who don't have title to gas reserves beneath their land. New studies are also questioning whether natural gas really has the greenhouse gas advantages over coal that have frequently been cited in the past.
Industry officials and their supporters talk about the need for updated rules that would provide all sides with "certainty," about drilling standards. But lawmakers have been working for three years on such rules with no legislation passed to date.