Environmental advocates say the 2023 West Virginia legislative session yielded incremental progress, with some key priorities still not satisfied after some limiting compromises.
The West Virginia Rivers Coalition had entered the session with two priorities: protection against PFAS, industrial chemicals linked to adverse health effects, and more funding for the understaffed, cash-strapped state inspection unit responsible for regulating the state’s gas and oil industry.
The Legislature passed bills designed to accomplish both goals, but environmental advocates see room for improvement on both fronts.
“[They] were important steps in the right direction, but not the end all be all when it comes to resolving either those issues,” Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said.
The Legislature-approved House Bill 3110 was designed to double the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas number of inspectors from 10 to 20, a total that West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization cofounder Dave McMahon said should be doubled again for adequate oversight of the state’s 75,000 wells and other gas and oil infrastructure.
Then the Senate Finance Committee limited the bill’s reach further by setting a $1.2 million cap on how much funding could be allocated annually from a severance tax-derived funding source designated by the measure for the Office and Oil and Gas.
Environmental, royalty and surface owner advocates have urged the Legislature to shore up funding for the Office of Oil and Gas in recent years, citing lost royalties and harmful methane emissions due to gas leaks thriving with limited monitoring stemming from an understaffed inspection unit.
The DEP reduced the size of the Office of Oil and Gas from about 45 to 25 staff members in 2020 over a lack of funding stemming from a decrease in revenue from the one-time permit fees the office relies on for support.
DEP Deputy Secretary Scott Mandirola told the House Energy and Manufacturing Committee prior to its approval of HB 3110 the Office of Oil and Gas’ 10 well inspectors are dwarfed by Pennsylvania’s 66 and Ohio’s 38.
West Virginia is the nation’s fourth-largest gas producer.
McMahon has urged state lawmakers to support around 40 well inspectors instead of going back to the 2020 status quo.
Before the Energy and Manufacturing Committee earlier this month, McMahon cited a 2018 study of West Virginia well sites by Princeton and McGill university researchers that found active conventional wells are a significant source of methane emitted into the atmosphere.
The study estimated that each active conventional well loses roughly 9% of production. Researchers found that the emission factor used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to project methane emissions from conventional active wells underestimates those emissions by 7.5 times.
Methane is typically released alongside other air pollutants that can cause cancer, asthma, premature birth and other devastating health outcomes.
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Rosser hopes legislators monitor how well the increased Office of Oil and Gas staff can regulate what could be significant industry growth if the region is successful in landing a hydrogen hub in a federal economic development funding competition.
“[W]e still have a long way to go,” West Virginia Environmental Council President Linda Frame said of working toward adequate gas and oil industry oversight.
The Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub, which calls itself ARCH2, is pursuing support for hydrogen hubs provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act enacted in 2021. The Department of Energy opened a $7 billion funding opportunity in September to create hydrogen hubs nationwide.
The goal of the program is to spread energy investments and jobs, and West Virginia leaders say an industrial hub in Appalachia would benefit the entire region.
Members of ARCH2, including Pittsburgh-based gas producer EQT, have touted “blue hydrogen” as a reliable energy solution. Blue hydrogen is derived mainly from breaking methane into hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
Unlike the Legislature’s past two regular sessions, the 2023 session didn’t a significant legislative push for easing regulations for aboveground storage tanks closest to public water intakes.
But conservationists still had to play defense against a bill that at one point would have allowed the Division of Natural Resources to establish trail systems for all-terrain, off-road and utility-task vehicles within state forests.
Senate Bill 468 eventually was scaled back significantly to include a ban on the Parks and Recreation Section of the DNR from establishing ATV, OTV or UTV trail systems within state parks and state forests except Cabwaylingo State Forest in Wayne County.
“I don’t expect that pressure to expand ATVs on public lands has been completely laid to rest,” Rosser said.
Frame called SB 468 “a Trojan horse” that could have opened up state forests to motorized vehicles.
West Virginia environmentalists also welcomed passage of House Bill 3189, a bill that would lay groundwork to protect the state against PFAS, man-made chemicals ubiquitous in consumer products and human blood linked to cancers and low birth weight.
HB 3189 would require the Department of Environmental Protection to write an action plan to identify and address sources of PFAS by July 1, 2024, for each of the 37 raw water sources for which a U.S. Geological Survey study published last year measured prominent PFAS above the EPA’s applicable drinking water human health advisories and above practical quantitation limits.
HB 3189’s passage came four days before the Environmental Protection Agency’s Tuesday release of a first-ever drinking water standard for PFAS.
“[T]his is really just the beginning of a new phase of addressing the PFAS problem in West Virginia, and the information we gain from this phase will inform next steps,” Rosser said, echoing what the DEP has said about the measure.