Tomblin Calls Special Session on Marcellus Drilling

Charleston Gazette
9 December 2011
By Lawrence Messina

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- West Virginia's Legislature will convene Sunday night to take up proposed rules for drilling in the Marcellus shale natural gas field, after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin concluded Friday that enough lawmakers supported the draft bill patched together in recent months.

Tomblin said the measure will include permit fees of $10,000 for an initial well and $5,000 for each additional well drilled at that site. Another provision would require 650-foot spaces between wells and occupied buildings, Tomblin said in a statement. Another outlines advance notice and other protections for owners of surface property that host wells, including when others own the gas mineral rights.

"We have the opportunity to pass landmark legislation that will be a significant step forward in the development of the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia,'' Tomblin said in the statement. "I believe we can complete the legislation next week.''

Lawmakers were already scheduled to arrive at the Capitol on Monday for the month's three-day series of study meetings. Tomblin wants them to consider a tweaked version of the draft bill endorsed in November by a special House-Senate committee after months of work that included a series of public hearings.

The mile-deep Marcellus Shale formation stretches beneath much of West Virginia as well as parts New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. It is considered one of the biggest reserves in the world, estimated to contain between two and six times as much natural gas as the entire U.S. industry produced for market in 2009, the latest year for which federal figures are available. West Virginia's sits above about 22 percent of those reserves, though available technology has drillers focused on developing the state's northernmost counties.

Tomblin aides began meeting with legislative leaders following the joint committee's November endorsement, as well as with representatives from industry, environmental groups and surface owners.

"Working with Legislative leaders, I believe we now have sufficient consensus on a piece of legislation that is in the best interest of West Virginia,'' said Tomblin, a Democrat.

The Legislature proved unable to pass a Marcellus rules bill during the 2011 regular session.

House Speaker Richard Thompson and Senate President Jeff Kessler formed the special committee with a goal of pursuing a measure that could win special session passage before the 2012 session, which begins in January.

At Tomblin's order, the state Department of Environmental Protection also issued an emergency regulatory rule in August. It requires drillers to explain how they'll protect area land, manage the large volumes of water involved, and respond to accidents.

Lawmakers are expected to review those provisions as the department seeks a permanent rule. The special session bill, meanwhile, also addresses spacing between wells and such water sources as private wells, streams and wetland areas. The fee levels, which industry groups balked at earlier this year, are meant to fund the additional field inspectors and office staff DEP needs to oversee the Marcellus drilling permits and wells.

Marcellus wells can require operators to drill horizontally toward the reserve, and not vertically as is usually the case with conventional wells. Operators may also crack the shale with a high-volume, high-pressure mix of water, chemicals and sand.

This technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has spurred concerns that range from the potential draining of area water supplies to the storage or disposal of frackwater afterward. Whether fracking can contaminate drinking water has been a key question in the Marcellus debate.