CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Draft legislation aimed at West Virginia's share of the Marcellus Shale natural gas field would change the way the state hires inspectors and expand public notice and comment regarding drilling operations, under amendments approved Monday by a special House-Senate committee.The interim committee returns Wednesday to consider more changes to its regulatory bill for this rich reserve. But while the lawmakers hope to craft a measure capable of passage during a special session this year, Monday's meeting helped underscore the continuing differences among interested parties.For instance, the committee's co-chairman, Sen. Doug Facemire, questioned the amendment abolishing the West Virginia Oil and Gas Inspectors' Examining Board.The board provides the annual exam for people applying to become inspectors, and then compiles the list of qualified candidates. Facemire spoke after James Martin, chief of the Oil and Gas office at the Department of Environmental Protection, and told lawmakers he was generally pleased with his inspection force."The main concern here is to have the best inspectors in the field that we can have," said Facemire, D-Braxton. "I just want to make it perfectly clear, because when we eliminate this board, we won't know what we're going to have. We do know what we do have with this board."Legislative audits have recommended abolishing the board, finding it duplicates duties already handled by the Division of Personnel for hiring other types of inspectors. Monday's amendment, approved narrowly, would have the division oversee the oil and gas hiring as well."It's not that we're going to get candidates with no qualifications," said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia. "The personnel [agency] will do what it always does, and will do what it does for all the other inspectors of the DEP."Delegate Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, said a key role of legislators is to cut unneeded bureaucracy. He also noted that the board has long lacked a citizen member, leaving just two industry representatives along with Martin and a second DEP official.DEP has also recommended getting rid of the board.
"It is an overlap of resources or overlap of responsibility," DEP lawyer Kristen Boggs told the committee, adding that the board "doesn't add any value to the services of state government."Monday's other amendments addressed public involvement. One outlines the public comment process and allows DEP's secretary to convene a public hearing when a driller applies for a permit. The other requires drilling applicants to notify the immediate neighbors of affected properties as well as the owners of known drinking supply sources within 2,500 feet of a well. It would also allow operators to publish a legal ad as an alternative to identifying and notifying these specific individuals.However, Phil Reale of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of West Virginia questioned the resulting burden of these amendments on both industry and regulators. Reale questioned whether foes of Marcellus drilling could press for public hearings as a way to hamstring operators."The number of hearings that potentially could be had here would effectively cripple the industry," Reale told the committee.Fleischauer cited the public hearings and comment provisions already in state law, many relating to DEP, as well as how the department secretary would have the final say on hearing requests."They don't have to have any," she told Reale. "Would you deny that public comment could be valuable to the DEP, that the DEP might learn something in advance ... that there might be things that they should think about ahead of time before drilling starts?"
"I would agree if public comment were based on fact and science and not ideology," Reale replied.Fleischauer's district includes Morgantown, which had banned Marcellus drilling in or near city limits when it involved hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." In that process, drillers pump lots of water mixed with sand and chemicals into wells to release the shale gas.Morgantown's ordinance responded to plans by Charleston-based Northeast Natural Energy to drill wells above the Monongahela River about a mile from a city drinking water intake. Northeast has successfully challenged that ordinance in circuit court.The anti-fracking group West Virginia for a Moratorium on Marcellus plans to protest Tuesday outside the Morgantown Industrial Park well site. It and other environmental groups, along with a surface owner organization, have criticized the DEP emergency rule issued last month to address some drilling topics while Monday's committee pursues a more comprehensive measure.Among other shortcomings, the DEP rule's critics say it cannot remedy the shortage of needed field inspectors. A fiscal note filed along with the rule said its provisions require the agency to hire nine more people, at a cost of $1.07 million annually.