Halt To Drilling Permits Wanted

Some lawmakers seek moratorium until new rules are put into place

Wheeling WV  Intelligencer
18 March 2011
By Casey Junkins, Staff Writer

WHEELING - A group of West Virginia legislators wants the state's Department of Environmental Protection to stop issuing natural gas drilling permits until new regulations are in place.

State Sen. Orphy Klempa, D-Ohio, is not sure such a moratorium on new drilling permits would be worthwhile, however, because the DEP has already issued more than 900 such permits for gas companies to work in the Marcellus Shale.

"Having 15 inspectors for 59,000 wells is clearly inadequate. We need to drastically increase the number of inspectors," said Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has said his Office of Oil and Gas now has 17 positions for well inspectors, but not all of those jobs may be filled. If there currently are 15 inspectors, that means each would be responsible for overseeing 3,933 wells.

Fleischauer and about 20 other legislators have already signed the moratorium request they are forwarding to Huffman.

However, none of these legislators hail from the Northern Panhandle.

Acting Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said he was unaware of the moratorium request, emphasizing his commitment to see the natural gas industry operate in an effective and safe manner throughout the state.

Klempa recognizes the need for action, but said preventing the issuance of more drilling permits would not solve the problem.

"I am hearing now that the industry doesn't really need any more permits right now. Now, their problem seems to be that they don't have enough drilling rigs to act on the permits they already have," he said.

There are now several well sites established in Ohio County that have recently seen gas rigs in use, including the Didriksen site on Dement Road and the Gantzer site near The Highlands.

"I think that after the special primary election, we will be able to have a special session to get this Marcellus Shale legislation done," Klempa said in reference to the May 14 gubernatorial primary election. "I feel we will get some meaningful legislation on this."

During the regular legislative session that ended Saturday, senators passed a bill that would have increased horizontal well drilling permit fees from $650 to $5,000. The bill failed to clear the House, however.

"We were close to an agreement, but just ran out of time," Fleischauer said. "There was no one thing that de-railed it."

The delegate said she does not believe allowing the industry to operate the way it does now is "an alternative worth tolerating."

Fleischauer also questions acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's plan to ask the legislators to increase revenues for the DEP as part of a new state spending plan.

"Our proposal would have made the drilling companies pay for more inspectors," Fleischauer said. "The governor wants us to direct money that we would already be using for something else to pay for the inspectors. If this industry is going to reap such huge profits, they should have to pay for more inspectors."

The governor has also told 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." However, Fleischauer does not see this as a real solution.

"The regulations as written are the law. The fees to charge for permits are written in the law," she said.