CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A U.S. Senate committee has scheduled a field hearing in Charleston next week to hear testimony about Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling in West Virginia.The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse.A committee spokesman said that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called for the hearing and is likely to be the only committee member to attend.A committee schedule said, "The purpose of the hearing is to examine Marcellus Shale Gas development and production in West Virginia."A list of scheduled witnesses and more specific topics to be addressed had not yet been made available on Tuesday."We are waiting to get some of those details locked in," said Emily Bittner, a spokeswoman for Manchin.Manchin has been promoting expanded drilling of the vast natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale, touting that gas as a huge job creator and a tool in reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.Two weeks ago, in a major speech in Morgantown, Manchin also criticized efforts by the Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency to increase federal regulation of natural gas drilling. While noting that West Virginia lawmakers had "not yet reached consensus on how we can best balance the potential of the Marcellus Shale with the concerns that residents have raised about its environmental effect," Manchin said such matters should be left to the states."Not only is this administration ignoring the fact that coal built this nation -- and provides nearly half of our electricity -- they are missing the tremendous potential of the shale resources in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and the rest of the region," Manchin said. "They're so determined to demonize fossil fuels that they ignore the vast, untapped resources waiting to be developed right here at home, which could reduce this nation's dependence on foreign oil and create good-paying, American jobs."Actually, the Obama administration's energy blueprint calls for "encouraging the exploration of new frontiers of production and of new ways to safely make use of domestic assets like our vast reserves of natural gas."U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson has said her agency's efforts to better regulate air and water pollution are aimed at "allowing continued, responsible growth in U.S. oil and natural gas production."A Department of Energy advisory committee reported in August that shale-gas reserves like the Marcellus have "enormous potential to provide economic and environmental benefits for the country."Shale gas is a widely distributed resource in North America that can be relatively cheaply produced, creating jobs across the country," the committee said. "Natural gas -- if properly produced and transported -- also offers climate change advantages because of its low carbon content compared to coal."During a hearing last month on that DOE advisory panel report, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said that expanded natural gas drilling "comes with a responsibility to address environmental concerns as well as human health and safety issues."Bingaman also noted recent scientific research questioning whether natural gas is really that big of an improvement over coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
"Some experts have claimed that fugitive emissions from natural gas extraction are routinely high enough that switching to natural gas could actually be worse than continuing to use coal, while many other experts have disputed these claims," Bingaman said. "If natural gas is to be used as a lower-carbon alternative to other fossil fuels, the issue of fugitive emissions is one that we must quantify, understand more fully, and address appropriately."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.