Lawmakers Weigh Effects of Shale Center Bill

Morgantown Dominion Post
25 July 2012
By David Beard

CHARLESTON — Legislators working on a bill to approve WVU’s Shale Research Center wrestled Tuesday morning with a question posed by Sen. Ronald Miller, D-Greenbrier: “Are we going to focus on fixing every center in West Virginia or just this one?”

Miller wasn’t implying there was anything wrong with WVU’s center. He was simply summarizing their confusion — a simple 2012 session bill to give the center state backing became another to create Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) oversight over all centers.

WVU continues its research, and legislators continue to wrestle with what they want.

Bill Hutchens, WVU’s general counsel and vice president for corporate and legal affairs, and Bruce Walker, HEPC general counsel, explained the issues to a joint Finance subcommittee Tuesday.

Hutchens drafted what became HB 4511, creating the WVU Shale Research, Education, Policy and Economic Development Center under the direction and authority of the WVU Board of Governors (BOG).

But the Senate Education Committee expanded the Senate twin, SB 522, calling for the HEPC to draft a rule (subject to legislative OK) establishing an approval process for all university research centers and requiring every university governing board to seek HEPC approval for new research centers.

The Senate amended its version into HB 4511. The two sides never reached agreement on the differences, so it died the last day of the session. Members are trying again.

Hutchens said he was OK with the Senate changes at the time, but learned that faculty balked at the expanded HEPC oversight. Academic matters typically fall under the BOG and the president, and faculty feared the HEPC could be approving every project by every individual researcher.

“They do not think it’s appropriate to go through rule making for every center,” Hutchens said.

Walker likewise said the HEPC isn’t seeking that kind of authority, but it’s a legislative policy matter, and if that’s what legislators want, that’s OK.

Asked why WVU sought the bill to begin with, Hutchens explained that WVU researchers are already studying aspects of the fracking industry. But the state’s backing “could give us increased credibility and cache.”

Hutchens said the whole state would give weight to the center’s interactions with federal and international agencies — the equivalents of the National Energy Technology laboratories in Canada, Mexico, Poland, China and more.

Hutchens told members that if they decide to mandate HEPC oversight of research centers, faculty would like a chance to help draft a definition of “research center.” There are already dozens of them at institutions across the state, of varying sizes and purposes, and the bill would need to be clear about the scope of HEPC authority.

To help members make up their minds how far they want to go with this issue, Walker said he would conduct a survey of how many centers already exist.

WVU research well

Hutchens said a dream project for the research center was put on hold by the recent dive in natural gas prices — but he’s working to get it going again.

WVU wants to work with an operator to drill a horizontal well on WVU land. It would be a working well, generating money for the operator. But it would also be a research well, with every bit of data from the first turn of dirt through drilling and production and on being shared to advance knowledge in the field.

When gas prices fell, operators cut back their drilling plans. “Now I’m looking for money to fund the work, from industry and others,” Hutchens said.