House Panel Revises Marcellus Drilling Bill

Charleston Gazette
9 March 2011
By  Alison Knezevich
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Marcellus Shale drillers would have to place horizontal wells 1,000 feet from West Virginians' homes and water wells, under legislation endorsed by a House of Delegates committee Wednesday. Current law allows drillers to place wells within 200 feet of people's homes and water wells. Advocates for surface owners say that has led to major disruption for homeowners.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee replaced a number of provisions in Senate-passed legislation (SB424) to regulate natural gas drilling. The bill now heads to the House Finance Committee, which is scheduled to take it up this morning.

"We're really pleased," said Julie Archer, lobbyist for the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization. "We're just hoping that the Senate will agree to accepting the House changes."

The House and Senate would have to work out an agreement between the two versions of the bill by Saturday, when the legislative session ends.

Dave McMahon of the surface owners group said he was disappointed with what he called "a delay tactic" on the House floor Wednesday evening. After endorsing the bill Wednesday morning, the House Judiciary Committee had recommended that it go straight to the floor.

Delegate Sam Cann, D-Harrison, objected to that, and the bill will now go to the House Finance Committee. Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, did not return messages seeking comment on the House Judiciary Committee's changes to the bill.

Among other things, the legislation would make drillers say what chemicals they use in the hydro-fracturing process, commonly known as "fracking."  A previous version of the proposal would have required drillers to also disclose the quantities of those chemicals, but the industry complained that rule would make them reveal trade secrets. "That's okay, as long as they really reveal what they're putting in there," McMahon said.

House Judiciary Committee members also made changes they said would smooth out tensions between natural gas operators and the coal industry about giving notice to coal mine operators when drilling will occur near mines.

Also, committee members added provisions to make drill operators notify surface owners within 30 days of surveying their land for proposed access roads on drill sites and new well work. This would apply to both horizontal and vertical wells. Drillers would have to offer to meet with the surface owner to explain their plans.

The committee also amended the bill to change the way the state hires gas well inspectors. That is currently handled by the state Oil and Gas Inspectors' Examining Board. Under the committee's changes, the state Environmental Protection would hire inspectors using the same process it does for other types of inspectors. Environmentalists and surface owners say the current system for hiring well inspectors favors the industry.