CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Tomblin administration weakened an executive order on the regulation of Marcellus Shale gas drilling just hours before the order was signed and publicly announced, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.Language in the order was rewritten to limit a new requirement for public notice for drilling permit applications and to reduce the oversight of oil and gas operations by registered engineers, the records show.The changes are reflected in drafts of the executive order released in response to a Gazette FOIA request and a draft posted online by the industry group Energize West Virginia.Details of why the changes were made are not fully available, in part because the governor's office has refused to make public its correspondence with industry lobbyists who were helping craft state drilling policies.Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, issued the executive order to require new rules from the state Department of Environmental Protection, in response to growing public pressure following the failure of any Marcellus legislation to win approval earlier this year.Drafts of Tomblin's order were provided under embargo to some news organizations in the hours prior to an announcement scheduled for a 2 p.m. press conference on July 12. Drafts were also provided to at least one industry group, but not to citizen groups that were advocating tough drilling rules.The draft order would have mandated that DEP provide public notice for any Marcellus Shale applications for drilling within any municipality or within a one-mile radius of the boundary of any municipality.
Morgantown city officials have tried to ban any drilling inside municipal limits or within a mile of those boundaries after being caught off guard by a drilling operation just upstream from their public water intake. Currently, DEP does not require any public notice for drilling permits.The final executive order signed by Tomblin requires DEP to establish public notice procedures for drilling permits within municipal borders, but drops the language about permits within a mile of those boundaries.Also, the draft executive order would have required DEP's rules to mandate that erosion control and well-site construction plans be built "under the supervision of" a registered professional engineer, language that would have forced engineers to be present on site for at least part of the work.The final order, though, requires only that DEP rules mandate that erosion control and construction work be performed "in accordance with plans certified" by a registered professional engineer.Media outlets that were given the earlier, embargoed draft of the executive order were given an updated version, in some cases just an hour before Tomblin's scheduled press conference.Earlier this week, the governor's office refused to release copies of its correspondence with oil and gas industry lobby groups and individual companies. The administration argues that industry officials were asked to act as "consultants or experts" and that any recommendations or opinions provided to the governor's office would therefore be exempt from public release.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.