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Lawmakers down to the wire on Marcellus regulations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As they enter the last few days of the legislative session, state lawmakers are still working out the details of proposed regulations for Marcellus Shale development.Members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday were scheduled to take up Senate-passed legislation  (SB424) on natural gas drilling, but instead decided to consider the legislation at a meeting set for this morning.Committee members are expected to replace the Senate bill with provisions the House had favored, including stronger environmental regulations. The legislative session ends Saturday.Even as time runs out, Dave McMahon of the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization said he remains optimistic."We're hopeful that a good bill will pass," he said.In the House Judiciary Committee, members including Delegates Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, and Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, have pushed for stronger environmental regulations.There has been bipartisan support to protect surface owners, McMahon said. "We've seen the rural House Republicans trying to improve surface owners' rights, which is why this should come out a strong bill," he said.Among other things, the legislation would make drillers develop water management plans and disclose what is in the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing -- where millions of gallons of water are mixed with chemicals and pumped underground to fracture shale deposits. The bill requires no public notice of horizontal well drilling. And it would allow gas wells to be placed within 200 feet of people's homes and water wells, which is the current legal limit.All of the regulations would only apply to horizontal Marcellus wells.It has been hard to compete with influence of industry lobbyists, McMahon said. Both the House and Senate have significantly scaled back initially proposed regulations.Environmentalists and surface owners were disappointed in changes made last month by the Senate Energy, Industry & Mining Committee.Sen. Doug Facemire, vice chairman of that committee, said he sought balance in the legislation.
"No one's going to get everything they want. We feel this is a very middle-of-the-road bill," the Braxton County Democrat said. "If you talk to the oil and gas people, they're going to give you things they don't like about the bill."
Corky DeMarco of West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association complained that the industry has not had enough input as the House looks to revise the bill."At this late date, we have multiple issues, all of which may be resolved," DeMarco said Tuesday evening, after the House Judiciary Committee announced that it would not consider the bill that night. "But the clock's running out, and we don't have a lot of time."Meanwhile, legislators are pushing ahead with proposals to give tax incentives to the gas industry."It would be a real shame if all they passed this session was tax breaks [for the industry] and didn't do anything to address the problems associated with it," said Julie Archer, lobbyist for the surface owners group and West Virginia Citizen Action Group. Leslee McCarty of the West Virginia Environmental Council said she has similar concerns."What kind of a place do we live if we're going to give [the industry] tax breaks and we're not going to regulate them?" she said.
Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, said there is "a lot of political will" to follow through on the proposed Marcellus regulations."It may not be everything we want, but we definitely have to have a foundation to start building off of," he said. "We're somewhat behind right now in trying to address that industry, so waiting another year would be detrimental, I think, to our state's economy, and would open us up to exploitation from out-of-state corporations."He added, "Coal's an excellent industry, but for years there wasn't reinvestment back into those communities [where coal is mined], and today we see the poverty and the depression. We can't make that mistake with natural gas."Reach Alison Knezevich at or 304-348-1240.   
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