The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Balancing Act

February 24, 2011

Legislators excited, cautious about Marcellus shale potential

BECKLEY — Among their other duties, West Virginia lawmakers have been busy weighing two complex bills regarding the Marcellus shale, all while taking input from a wave of industry, environmental and property owner lobbyists.

Only a few weeks ago, counsel to the House judiciary Joe Altizer gave a rundown on Marcellus shale and horizontal gas drilling to legislators. He said the significance and potential impact of the shale was “mind-boggling.” Now, officials are looking to move forward with possible legislation to control the approaching boom in natural gas drilling.

While most of West Virginia’s elected officials appear to be excited about the potential of the Marcellus shale and further development of the state’s gas industry, they are also understandably cautious. Environmental damage, property infringement and numerous other problems could be wrought on their constituents if every option is not weighed carefully.

Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in the short- and long-term future, he thinks the natural gas industry in West Virginia means “in a word, jobs.”

“First, a number of jobs are created directly related to the drilling process, from those involved in site preparation, to drilling, to transportation of the natural gas,” Tomblin said. “Our state is rich in natural energy resources that power the country and the world, and the drilling of natural gas, and particularly the Marcellus shale play, can be a huge job creator for West Virginia.”

Tomblin launched a task force, through executive order, to explore the possible ways other industries in West Virginia could benefit from the Marcellus shale play. One such possibility would be extracting ethane, a valuable chemical, from the natural gas.

“Ethane, if sent through a steam cracking process in West Virginia, is a fundamental building block used widely in the manufacturing sector,” Tomblin said. “This development can literally rebuild the manufacturing sector in West Virginia.  And with it will come high-paying, much-needed jobs to our state.”

Tomblin reiterated jobs developed from the possible natural gas boom was the most promising aspect of the industry’s reinvigorated interest in the state.

“It is all about job creation for me, and, as I mentioned ... the ability to restart the manufacturing industry in West Virginia,” Tomblin said. “I want to give our young people and those already in the workforce every opportunity to be able to stay in their communities and find work that they are trained to do and that supports their families.  This is one of those opportunities.”

Acting Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, said he feels regulating the industry is a complex process that will involve numerous factors.

“West Virginia has a unique opportunity to create genuine wealth in this state,” Kessler said. “To diversify our economy, to go places we’ve never dreamed of going before, based in large part on our energy opportunity.”

Kessler added that environmental considerations must also be held up beside of the economic considerations.

“In my dealing with industries, as well as communities and landowners, there are a lot of different viewpoints that need to be taken into consideration, but at the end of the day, we need to make sure our water is protected and safe,” Kessler said. 

Delegate Rick Snuffer, R-Raleigh, has been following the development of natural gas closely. He said he was concerned that the legislators work hard to ensure they “get it right.”

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for the state. It’s kind of a second chance to get it right,” Snuffer said. “With coal, we missed out on the chance to really benefit the people of this state.”

Snuffer said the concerns that have been raised by environmentalists need to be heavily considered and that not all of those concerns may be addressed by current proposals.

“In some places, it has gotten to the point of, and I don’t mean this term the wrong way, a hysteria,” Snuffer said. “I think there are some legitimate reasons for that. I don’t know if they are adequately addressed in this bill or not.”

Snuffer said he was considering offering up at least one amendment if it’s is not added before the proposed bill goes to the floor.

“There is a system called a closed-loop system, where they re-use the same waters over and over again,” Snuffer said. “You don’t have the problems, the storage ponds, it’s all in a contained system. They say it is actually less expensive for the drilling companies to use these closed-loop systems.”

The industry, some lawmakers have found, is cooperating with adopting regulations. Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, said there has been great participation on behalf of industry to work with lawmakers.

 “We actually have a lot of industry that is prepared to step forward and see us adopt (regulations) and to cooperate in adopting it,” Manchin said.

Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said she had been learning about the science and practice of the natural gas industry to help meet the concerns of her constituents.

“I believe the Marcellus drilling is the most important issue for our state right now,” Fleischauer said. “It has a potential for great benefit, and it has a potential for great harm. It is our job as policymakers to try to get the correct balance.”

Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, also stresses the need to protect the environment, while keeping regulations reasonable enough so as not to encumber industry.

“There are so many industries out there that pollute the environment,” Manypenny said. “It’s time that they are held accountable. It’s time that we take our state back. We don’t need to be subsidizing energy. We need to make industry subsidize itself.”

“There are some issues that are so complex, it’s going to take a while to get it all ironed out so that we do this right,” Manypenny said.

Snuffer said he was confident that legislation would be passed before the close of this session.

“I think we are going to see a form of Marcellus shale legislation passed out of both houses and signed into law by the acting governor,” Snuffer said. “I think we are going to have to revisit it; we are going to have to tweak it.”

— E-mail: tkuykendall@register-herald.com

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