Lawmakers can still budget additional gas well inspectors for West Virginia’s portion of the Marcellus Shale natural gas field, even though they ended their recent regular session without passing any new rules for drilling, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Tuesday.
Tomblin called on legislators to increase revenues for the Department of Environmental Protection to hire more inspectors, as they complete a new state spending plan this week.
“Having boots on the ground and inspectors in the field is the first step in guaranteeing that Marcellus Shale wells are being drilled in an environmentally responsible manner,” Tomblin said in a statement.
Members of the House-Senate committee assigned to craft the new state budget met for the first time Tuesday.
“I wouldn’t want to tie my hands and say there’s money in there, because we haven’t gotten that far yet,” said House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, before the meeting. “I would think that the Marcellus issue is a little more complicated than just naming some inspectors. That’s my first inclination. But we might able to add a few of them within the total package.”
Tomblin said he’s also told DEP Secretary Randy Huffman to pursue new regulations for these drilling operations, in the absence of legislative action. Tomblin cited Huffman’s in-house rulemaking powers and said that “West Virginians deserve a comprehensive regulatory structure” governing this industry.
“A reasonable, predictable regulatory environment is important not only to our citizens, but also to those companies who are investing millions of dollars into our economy,” Tomblin said. “We want that investment to continue and we look forward to working with those companies who are committed to responsibly developing our natural gas reserves.”
But House Speaker Rick Thompson and others are instead calling for a special session focused on new rules for Marcellus operations. Such groups as the West Virginia Environmental Council say DEP cannot get the job done without new legislation.
“Our drilling laws have not been modified in nearly 40 years,” council lobbyist Don Garvin said in a Monday statement. “There are only 17 inspectors for 59,000 active gas wells. There are 6,000 conventional wells that need to be plugged before the well owners go out of business. We have had at least three major well fires and explosions in the past 18 months. The current system isn’t working.”
The Legislature did approve a measure that expands several tax credit programs to encourage Marcellus drilling and related industries. But lawmakers removed a provision that earmarked $2 million for DEP regulatory efforts just before its final passage.
The industry has seized on the mile-deep Marcellus Shale as one of the richest natural gas discoveries in a generation. The massive rock formation stretches beneath West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. But tapping its reserves can involve an unconventional, horizontal drilling method and hydraulic fracturing. With this process, drillers crack the shale with a high-volume mix of water, chemicals and sand to extract the gas.
These operations raise concerns regarding area water supplies as well as surface land plotted for well sites and access roads. Heavy trucks hauling water, sand, drilling rigs and other gear have also taken a toll on some narrow country roads. Tomblin noted that the Division of Highways has enacted a new permit process to regulate this traffic.
The House and Senate debated legislation to regulate this industry throughout their 60-day regular session, but no bill emerged by Saturday’s finale. Thompson, D-Wayne, has cited the complexity of the Marcellus issues and the impasse among industry, environmentalists and surface and gas rights owners. But Julie Archer, who represents both West Virginia Citizen Action Group and the state’s Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, blames Thompson for dooming the bill through the way he managed the House’s time during the session’s closing hours.
“Now the speaker says he believes the issue should be dealt with in a special session,” Archer said Monday. “If he is serious about a special session, he should push to make it happen.”