CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia stepped closer Tuesday to requiring greater permit fees, buffer zones and regulatory oversight for natural gas drillers in the Marcellus shale field, when the state Senate unanimously passed special session legislation to the House of Delegates.The House Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, expected to consider its version of the bill, drafted by a special joint committee and modified by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in advance of Sunday's special session start.The Marcellus shale is considered among the world's richest natural gas reserves. The mile-deep rock formation stretches beneath West Virginia as well as parts of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Tapping it can involve blasting the shale with a deluge of water mixed with chemicals and sand. This method of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has prompted environmental concerns. Owners of surface land that hosts or neighbors well sites have also complained about noise from these operations, damage to their property and having to share narrow country roads with oversize trucks.The industry touts the potential economic windfall from reaping this energy source. When discussing regulations and permit fees, its representatives have argued that heavy-handed lawmakers could hurt West Virginia's ability to compete with other Marcellus states.
In the absence of legislation specifically crafted for this form of drilling, West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection has already granted 1,655 Marcellus well permits and are considering another 206, Secretary Randy Huffman told lawmakers on Monday. The pending bill seeks to address such topics as surface owner rights, protections for area property and water sources and use of secondary roads.The Senate Judiciary Committee amended the bill Monday to bolster its efforts to ensure surface owners receive notice before operators send survey crews or begin drilling. One chance, for instance, requires prior notice when a developer has picked a well site, and not just when it applies for a permit. Senators approved additional changes Tuesday before passing the bill, such as by calling for notices to be published in newspapers.The Senate committee also exempted wells with pending permit applications from the bill's provisions. It also amended the measure so its buffer zones won't apply to additional wells drilled at existing sites.Several lawmakers have questioned the legislation's scope. It would only apply to new horizontal wells that will disturb at least three acres or consume at least 120,000 gallons of water a month. Environmental groups argue that this approach wrongly leaves out smaller operations and those that rely on traditional, vertical wells. They also complain that some of the spacing requirements are insufficient, and disagree when bill measures distances from the center of a well site and not the edge.