Coal, gas drilling bills get hearings as session enters final week

Photo by Ken Ward Jr. | Gazette-Mail
West Virginia Coal Association lobbyists Jason Bostic, left, and Chris Hamilton, listen to testimony during a public hearing Monday morning in the House Chamber.

Bills to give West Virginia’s coal industry a break on water quality standards and the state’s natural gas drillers help in dealing with unwilling land and mineral owners had public hearings in the House of Delegates this morning as the legislative session entered its final week.

The House Committee on Energy held back-to-back hearings starting at 8 a.m. on a bill to eliminate the requirement that state stream quality measures ensure a diversity of aquatic life and a separate bill that would force unwilling co-owners of natural gas reserves to allow drilling if three-quarters of the owners favor the activity.

Environmental groups and citizens turned out with strong opposition to Senate Bill 687. The Senate-passed “coal bill” started out as a proposal to eliminate almost all state mine safety enforcement, but now does little for safety, while making a significant change in the way the state Department of Environmental Protection would measure stream health.

Among those who spoke against the legislation was Wendy Radcliff, a Charleston attorney who was fired from her former position as the DEP’s environmental advocate by agency Secretary Austin Caperton. Radcliff said that the bill won’t make streams cleaner, just eliminate part of the DEP’s process to accurately analyze the level of pollution downstream from mining operations.

“Ignoring pollution is not the solution,” Radcliff said. “The problem is still there, whether we remove the measuring tool or not.”

Jason Bostic, a vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association, said the industry asked for the change to help it respond to lawsuits and court rulings about how water quality rules are established and enforced in the state.

“These changes are there only to clarify a loophole to allow an unelected federal judge to substitute his judgment for the people in this body about what West Virginia’s narrative water quality standards should be,” Bostic said.

Energy Committee members also heard testimony on Senate Bill 576, the legislation that natural gas drillers say is needed to help them better take advantage of the huge natural gas supplies in the state’s Marcellus Shale region.

The first to speak in favor of the bill was Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, whose boss, Gov. Jim Justice, has supported some form of the legislation.

“These gas reserves are the way we’re going to work our way out of the morass we are in,” Thrasher said. “Make no mistake about it.”

Opponents, though, said the bill unfairly takes the mineral property of West Virginians without ensuring much-needed protection for surface landowners and modernizing — increasing — the royalty payments contained in decades-old leases to match the economics of the modern industry.

“This bill forces a pooling provision into everyone’s leases without the benefit of any negotiation,” said Jason Webb, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Land and Mineral Owners Association. “It’s difficult for us to understand why the government wants to force that on anyone.”

House Energy Chairman William Anderson, R-Wood, said he expected there to be proposed changes for both bills when the committee puts them on the agenda for consideration Tuesday or Wednesday. The legislative session ends at midnight Saturday. If the House changes either bill, the changes would have to go back to the Senate for its consideration.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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