Marcellus Bill Dead, So Now What?

Charleston Gazette
14 March 2011
By Ken Ward Jr.

It’s all over but the finger-pointing as far as West Virginia lawmakers taking any steps to create new regulations to govern the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom.

Phil Kabler and Alison Knezevich had a roundup of the final night’s action — or lack of action — by the Legislature on the issue in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail here.

The Associated Press had this additional reporting on the bill’s demise and what might come next:

Speaker Rick Thompson defended his leadership’s work in a post-session interview with reporters. He said the issue was complex.

“It’s difficult to get all the different people interested in the result,” said Thompson, D-Wayne, “We worked very hard, but we ran out of time while trying to put all these different issues together between the Senate version and the House version.”

Thompson called for a special session devoted solely to Marcellus rules. Tomblin instead wants the Department of Environmental Protection to explore ways to oversee these drilling operations short of new legislation.

“I think DEP has the authority right now to go ahead and establish the regulations,” Tomblin said. “I think the secretary is willing to go forward.”

Tomblin, the Senate President Acting as Governor, has shown absolutely no interest to date in increasing the state’s oversight of natural gas drilling.  Recall that in his State of the State address in January, Tomblin promoted the industry boom, but made no mention at all of additional regulations.   And in February, when he formed a task force to promote spin-off industries, Tomblin touted what he said was the environmentally responsible manner in which the extraction of natural gas from Marcellus Shale occurs.

Also interesting were the comments of WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman, who told reporters after the bill’s death:

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said he is confident his agency will be able to regulate the drilling without changes in the law, at least for now.

“We don’t have a crisis in the short term,” he said. As far as the legislation, “I think it was a lot to expect to get so many issues and so many interests dealt with adequately in such a short period of time.”

Randy and his agency spent months trying to come up with legislative language to address their concerns about Marcellus drilling, and Randy was pretty clear before the session started about the need for such a bill:

What we have here is not a new twist on the same industry. In my view as a regulator, we have a whole new industry and we don’t have a regulatory program to deal with that industry.

Finally, does the notion pushed by some legislative leaders that they just didn’t have time to get a compromise bill together really make sense?

Remember that many of the same issues were at play last year, when the 2010 Legislature decided not to pass any new regulations on Marcellus drilling.  And WVDEP proposed new rules back in 2009, and lawmakers were having discussions about the matter then.

And many of the issues regarding the rights and needed protections for surface owners are hardly new … they’ve been discussed during many legislative sessions going back quite a few years.

Of course, lawmakers had no such problems finding the time or working out a compromise to pass legislation to give tax breaks for both drilling rigs and for potential new spin-off businesses for natural gas processing …