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Marcellus issue awaits W.Va. lawmaker attention

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Barring any problems with their recently crafted redistricting plans, West Virginia lawmakers may now devote more attention to new rules for the state's share of the Marcellus shale field.Wrapping up the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts could not have come at a better time. A special House-Senate committee has hit a rocky patch as it considers regulations for this rich natural gas reserve.The committee unveiled and began amending a draft proposal earlier this month. Committee members hope to reach sufficient consensus to justify a special session for Marcellus this year. But the members are at odds over whether they can reach that goal. They even disagree over when the committee should meet.Another factor that could help lawmakers: the emergency Marcellus rules ordered earlier by acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The Department of Environmental Protection could issue them as soon as this week, according to state officials and stakeholders.These rules are expected to cover several key areas. One involves permits for the horizontal drilling method that often accompanies Marcellus development. Another is oversight of the large volumes of water withdrawn from area supplies, and of the chemicals mixed with that water before it is pumped underground to break up the shale and release the gas. Environmental groups remain concerned about this hydraulic fracturing process, also known as fracking, and the large pools of tainted water left over afterward.Other areas include standards meant to ensure that gas wells, once drilled, don't contaminate nearby water sources or coal seams by leaking methane or fluids. The rules are also expected to detail the safety and evacuation plans that operators must make available to local first responders.But environmental and surface owner groups question whether Tomblin's executive order goes far enough. They're holding Monday events both in Charleston and Morgantown to draw attention to what they consider shortfalls in the scope of the expected emergency rules.Industry groups also agree that the emergency rules won't eliminate the need for legislation. Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said only lawmakers can update definitions in state law to reflect the unconventional Marcellus methods. The same is true for a revenue source so DEP can hire the additional inspectors needed for the Marcellus field."We fully support a higher fee for permits,'' DeMarco said. "Having said that, I don't think it's fair to the West Virginia industry to make it three or four times what is being paid in other parts of this basin.'' And while environmental and surface owner advocates support the seven or so amendments added to the draft bill, the industry objects to several of them. DeMarco singled out the final amendment approved by the committee Aug. 2. It requires drillers to detail the residency, wages and other information about its overall workforce and its employees assigned to West Virginia operations. The change reflects concerns that companies aren't hiring in-state for the flood of jobs that's accompanied the pursuit of natural gas in the Marcellus field."No other industry has to submit to that,'' DeMarco said. "To think that after that whole process, we still have a bunch of people who are forcing amendments. I'm frustrated. I don't have a lot of confidence about getting something through in special session.''The committee's House co-chairman, Delegate Tim Manchin, isn't giving up on a special session before 2012. He cited how the committee's House members held a series of three public hearings in late July that drew ever-increasing crowds in Wheeling, Morgantown and Clarksburg."That's what my constituents want, clearly, back home,'' the Marion County Democrat said.
The committee also held two, multi-hour sessions during August's interim study meetings, but had to cancel a third because of the special redistricting session. Manchin also said the panel's Senate members have had difficulty scheduling more."We requested to meet twice during this special session. They're not available,'' Manchin said, referring to the follow-up redistricting session that ended Sunday. "We requested that we meet three times during September interims. I've been told that they're willing to meet twice.''
Manchin said the committee has around 13 proposed changes to the draft bill left to consider."You have to have time to work those amendments,'' he said. "I can't get anywhere without meeting time.''Manchin's Senate counterpart, Co-Chairman Doug Facemire, said the two September meetings might be enough to finish the draft bill. But he also believes the emergency rules will provide some breathing room just in case."Quite honestly, if we don't have anything done before October, you're only two months before the regular session starts. I don't know that it would be wise after that to have a special session just for Marcellus,'' said Facemire, D-Braxton.Facemire also noted that while he and other senators on the committee generally support the amendments approved so far, the panel must still find sufficient approval for a final draft among both chambers. The Legislature failed to pass a regulatory bill during the year's regular session, after a Senate-passed measure was amended and then idled in the House."I hope the people aren't thinking that this will be the last piece of legislation governing Marcellus, because it won't be,'' Facemire said, explaining that "as this industry evolves, we need to be able to evolve with it.''Online:
Marcellus draft bill, abstract and summary: Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at    
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