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Bills with an environmental focus aren’t moving through the West Virginia Legislature nearly as quickly as a charter school reform passed by the House of Delegates Tuesday, but the first week of the legislative session has already prompted some concern among conservationists.

At a hearing for his department’s budget presentation before the Senate Finance Committee session Monday, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Harold Ward gave committee members a warning.

“Revenue for the Office of Oil and Gas could not be more dire,” Ward told the committee.

Ward noted that following a decline in revenue corresponding with decreased drilling activity, the department has allowed 14 vacancies to go unfilled since the beginning of 2020 in the Office of Oil and Gas, which is responsible for monitoring and regulating exploration, drilling, storage and production of oil and natural gas in West Virginia.

The Office of Oil and Gas‘s number of filled positions has dwindled to 25, but the office still had 60,000 active wells and 15,000 abandoned wells under its jurisdiction earlier this month, according to Terry Fletcher, the DEP’s acting communications director.

Ward acknowledged that even with a 35% decrease in Office of Oil and Gas staff, the office still faces a $1.3 million shortfall.

That has raised concerns that the office is inadequately equipped to make sure wells are properly inspected and maintained, worries that Sen. William Ihlenfeld II, D-Ohio, voiced during a news conference earlier this month moderated by Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

During Monday’s Senate Finance Committee session, Ihlenfeld asked Ward how the state tracks how much natural gas it produces, what his suggestion was for bringing more well inspectors back to the Office of Oil and Gas, and what might be a good fee amount for well operators to pay to raise money to support the office.

Ward declined to respond on all three counts, citing his newness in the cabinet secretary position (taking over last month) and deferring to James Martin, director of the Office of Oil and Gas, who was not on hand to respond.

Conservation groups and state lawmakers at the news conference earlier this month with Ihlenfeld and Rosser supported a $100 per well per year fee, which Dave McMahon, co-founder of the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, predicts would cover the Office of Oil and Gas shortfall and leave some money for addressing abandoned and orphaned wells.

Asked if the budget presented to the committee calls for an increase in funding to make up the $1.3 million shortfall, Ward said the budget was only a “stopgap” consisting of funds the department already had to see it through to a proposal for long-term funding to address the issue in its next budget.

“It made it sound like the agency was going to scrape by this year and hope for help next year,” Rosser said. “That’s not good financial management when you know you have a problem and know you’re understaffed and know you’re not meeting your responsibilities, whether it be this year or next year. Now’s the time to work with the Legislature to find a solution.”

Ward also raised concern about the long-term health of the state’s mining and reclamation program, saying it can be sustained only through 2024 and possibly 2025, with a decline in mining activity resulting in the state needing an additional $3.2 million annually to keep the program going, with revenues eventually decreasing for the department’s Division of Air Quality as well.

Rosser and West Virginia Environmental Council Executive Director Linda Frame are also wary of proposals referred to the House and Senate Judiciary committees to finalize revisions to requirements governing West Virginia’s water quality standards that would weaken some of those standards.

The plan to update the state’s water quality standards dates back to 2018, when the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection proposed updating standards on pollutants discharged into the state’s rivers and streams. The standards are up for DEP review every three years per the federal Clean Water Act. The DEP proposed updating standards for 60 pollutants, some of which hadn’t been updated since the 1980s, based on recommendations that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made in 2015.

But the committee removed those standard updates in 2018 after pushback from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, which has argued that the DEP should use different human health criteria.

The state Legislature adopted a bill in 2019 that required the DEP to delay presenting new standards until the 2021 legislative session after proposing updates by Apr. 1, 2020.

The DEP did that on March 31, releasing a proposal that would adopt 24 of the EPA’s 94 proposed updates, 13 of which would be weakened.

Rosser said that they have requested a public hearing from House Judiciary Chairman Moore Capito on the water quality standard update.

Frame is more pleased with Senate Bill 30, a bill with a bipartisan group of sponsors that would allow third-party ownership of all renewable and alternative generating facilities.

“[That’s] the main one that jumps out at me right now,” Frame said.

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