The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Balancing Act

February 23, 2011

Miley sees Marcellus bill not dead, on life support

CHARLESTON — Borrowing a line from a Jerry Reed song, one could say that a  comprehensive Marcellus shale bill faces a long way to go, and a short time to get there.

That was House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley’s apt analysis Tuesday of one of this session’s key items, one that could affect the promising exploration of natural gas in West Virginia.

What complicates the issue for the House is that the bill is attempting to address four key areas.

Since it is double-referenced, the finance committee must take it up after Miley’s panel finishes its work.

And the finance panel faces no small task in the days ahead, Miley emphasized.

“I don’t know that it’s dead per se,” said Miley, D-Harrison.

“But it’s got a long road to go and a short time to get there.”

Marcellus shale is a far-reaching reserve of natural gas that stretches from the north-central counties of West Virginia to New York, bearing the promise of a major economic boon to regions where it is extracted.

Finance members in the House are struggling with some other heavy matters besides Marcellus shale, he pointed out.

Among them are proposed pay raises for teachers and state employees, a 1 percent rollback in the food tax, homestead exemption, and possibly higher pay for every judge from magistrate to the Supreme Court.

Adding the Marcellus legislation to that already loaded agenda imposes a heavy burden, Miley said.

Possibly, he said, the judiciary panel could seek a waiver to keep the gas proposal from being shipped to the finance panel.

“If it relates to having a fiscal impact on the state, positively or negatively, we probably won’t want to waive, and ought not to waive,” Miley said.

“We were hoping to pass a comprehensive bill that would regulate four big areas that directly impact the citizens out there in our state.”

Damage to roads by heavy equipment is one such area.

A second one is the regulation of sources from which drillers draw water in the hydro-fracking wells.

“A third is the forced pooling issue that would allow the gas companies to create large pools, or tracts, of land so they can make maximum use of horizontal wells,” the judiciary chairman said.

And, the fourth, but certainly not least, entails the rights of landowners “in light of the huge footprint that now occupies someone’s land, compared to the traditional vertical wells,” Miley said.

Of those arenas, one has been excised from the bill — the pooling issue.

Among the remaining ones, the water quality issue could stir the most passions.

Miley said this embraces a wide gamut of issues — the source of water, how it is used, the kinds of chemicals dumped into it, and disposal or recycling of used water.

 “There are just a lot of issues that affect a lot of interested groups and individuals in the state of West Virginia,” he said.

Next Wednesday is what is known in legislative parlance as “crossover day,” meaning the deadline for each chamber to get its own bills sent out.

“It doesn’t look terribly promising to get a comprehensive bill,” Miley acknowledged.

“But we hope we at least to get a bill that addresses specific areas of need that really have an urgency behind them.”

Even if the bill fizzles in the next 2 1/2 weeks, he said, there is always the prospect of taking it up in a study group, or anticipated special sessions in the months ahead.

“It’s not dead, but it’s on life support,” Miley added.

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