Morgantown Demands Special Session on Gas Drilling

Charleston Gazette
6 April 2011
By The Associated Press

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The city of Morgantown is demanding that Sen. Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, convene a special legislative session to toughen regulations on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale field, but it rejected a resolution calling for a moratorium on the deep wells.

The proposed moratorium failed for lack of support at a City Council meeting Tuesday night, as did a similar amendment to the resolution requesting a special session.

"It's extremely important we take a stand on this," said Councilman Don Spencer, who supported the moratorium. "Our people need our help, not our acquiescence."

Morgantown resident Peg Reese, a retired conservationist, agreed. The Dominion Post reported that Reese and others in the crowd argued the state needs strong policies to protect its people, water and air.

"West Virginia has a history of extraction industries coming in and damaging resources ... and leaving West Virginians to clean up the mess," Reese said.

Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said Wednesday that supporting a moratorium would have sent the wrong message to industry.

"We're poised to get billions of dollars in investments in this state, like we've never seen before," he said. "We need certainty."

Supporting the natural gas industry also supports American manufacturing, he said, because gas is a preferred, affordable energy source for factories.

Natural gas companies are rushing to tap the vast reserves that lie under West Virginia and much of Central Appalachia.

To reach the mile-deep deposits, they use horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, in which millions of gallons of chemical-laden water are blasted underground to break up the rock

The state Department of Environmental Protection has said it has too few inspectors to keep up with the growth, and it needs a revenue source to hire them. Many residents and environmentalists, meanwhile, worry the state's regulations are too weak to protect water sources, air quality, roads and more.

Two bills to regulate Marcellus drilling died on the final day of the last legislative session.

"We support reasonable additional regulations," said Mike McCown, president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association. "But we plan to continue to drill. If forced, we'll take our jobs and capital elsewhere."

DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said the agency would welcome the opportunity to address the issues it tried to tackle during the regular session, but Tomblin has indicated he'd call a special session only if lawmakers were closer to an agreement.

 Since 2009, the DEP has issued about 900 permits for Marcellus wells, and Cosco said about 200 of those have been completed. Eighty-eight permits are in review.

 "If the secretary thought that the issue was getting too far ahead of us, then he would consider a moratorium," she said, "but at this moment, there is no need for a moratorium on issuing permits."

DeMarco said only one West Virginia community has passed a resolution opposing gas drilling -- the city of Lewisburg. But southern Greenbrier and Monroe counties have special concerns with their porous Karst limestone geology, he said.

Although some companies have leased land in those areas, DeMarco said none is yet drilling there.