By Lawrence Messina
West Virginia would charge natural gas drillers $10,000 and $5,000 permit fees, require advance notice to surface property owners and rely on its Department of Environmental Protection to set standards for well sites under a special session bill introduced Sunday to regulate the Marcellus shale field.
The Senate and House of Delegates met briefly to receive the proposal from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, drawn largely from a draft endorsed last month by a special joint legislative panel.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will tackle that chamber’s version of the bill today, and it would then go to the body’s Finance Committee. The House Judiciary Committee takes up its version Tuesday, after holding a public hearing today in the House Chamber.
The mile-deep Marcellus shale formation stretches beneath much of West Virginia as well as parts of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. West Virginia sits above about 22 percent of those reserves, though available technology has drillers focused on developing the state’s northernmost counties. The Marcellus shale is considered one of the biggest natural gas reserves in the world, estimated to contain between two and six times as much of that fossil fuel as the entire U.S. industry produced for market in 2009, the latest year for which federal figures are available.
The legislation would apply to operations that drill at the shale horizontally and rely on hydraulic fracturing to tap it. With this technique, also known as fracking, operators crack the shale with a high-volume, high-pressure mix of water, chemicals and sand. Fracking has spurred concerns that this briny fluid can contaminate area streams, drinking wells and other water sources. Related issues include withdrawals from those sources for the needed water and storing or disposing of the frack fluid afterward.
The bill focuses on well sites that consume more than 210,000 gallons of water a month. It would set minimum distances between gas wells and houses, drinking supplies and other water sources. It would assign the Department of Environmental Protection to craft specific standards for well sites, including for sheathing well walls in cement to prevent leaks and for frack water holding ponds.
The measure also proposes permit fees of $10,000 for an initial well and $5,000 for each additional well drilled at that site. It would provide prior notice to surface property owners and other area residents. It also requires an economic study of the jobs, payroll and salaries from Marcellus operations and whether those benefit West Virginia residents.
With Democrats holding the majority in both the House and Senate, their top leaders expressed optimism Sunday that the bill can pass to Tomblin this week.
“I think the interim committee did a lot of the heavy lifting,” said House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne. “When you talk about a bill of this magnitude, a lot of people may not be 100-percent happy, but I do believe it’s important that we get this major piece of legislation passed, and so you need consensus and compromise in order to do that.”
Senate President Jeff Kessler represents a district active with Marcellus drilling. The Marshall County Democrat noted that the Senate passed a Marcellus regulatory bill during the year’s regular session — it died in the House — and said the pending version “provides some legislative regulatory capability as well as some protections to our environment and landholders and royalty owners.”