There was no shortage of bills that received close consideration in committee meetings throughout the West Virginia state legislative session that ended at the stroke of midnight Sunday that would have supplied much-needed funding boosts to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
There’s still a shortage of funding, though.
The state office responsible for overseeing 75,000 oil and gas wells across West Virginia looks to be in better financial shape because of the legislative session, but only marginally so.
Gov. Jim Justice signed into law Senate Bill 404, which establishes a $2,500 fee for modifications of well-work permits that state Department of Environmental Protection officials have estimated would provide an additional $500,000 annually for the Office of Oil and Gas.
But the office faces a $1.3 million shortfall as its main revenue pipeline, permit fees, has dried up amid oil and gas industry struggles. Last year, the office resolved to eliminate 14 of about 39 positions, saving around $1.1 million.
There is currently no fee for oil- or gas-well permit modification applications. Other DEP permitting programs, including mining, air and water, have fees associated with modifications.
Senate Bill 712, advanced by the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee, would have imposed an annual $100 oversight fee for all unplugged wells producing 10,000 cubic feet or more of gas that are not solely providing free gas to a landowner, a category of about 13,000 wells statewide that the DEP estimated would have generated an additional $800,000 per year for the Office of Oil and Gas to erase the rest of its $1.3 million deficit.
But that bill stalled in the Senate Finance Committee. House Bill 2725, which required well operators to submit an oversight fee of $100 for each unplugged well and was estimated by the DEP to bring in an estimated $6.8 million for the Office of Oil and Gas, was never taken up by the House Energy and Manufacturing Committee.
“The office [of Oil and Gas] is starving,” West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization cofounder Dave McMahon said.
“The Office of Oil and Gas I’m very worried about. That was very regrettable that the annual fee per well bill [SB 712] stalled out,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said. “ … We’ll be watching closely what that’s going to mean over the next year. Will it mean more layoffs?”
Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Terry Fletcher declined comment.
A bill that would have shored up funding for the state’s air regulatory department as it faces a long-term decline in revenue also failed. House Bill 3082, which would have allowed the Division of Air Quality within the state Department of Environmental Protection to invest money held in two funds to make up for a loss in revenue caused by decreasing permit fee collections while prohibiting moving money in the funds to other accounts, passed the House 74-26 but stalled in the Senate Finance Committee.
Despite the objections of conservationists and concerned citizens, House Bill 2382, a department-backed rules package updating the state’s water quality standards, passed through the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice.
The rules bundle included a weakening of water quality standards for certain carcinogens and also strengthened some such standards.
Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Secretary Scott Mandirola defended the updates in testimony before lawmakers, saying they would leave the cancer risk managed by the existing standards at 1 in 1 million.
But the proposal drew the ire of conservationists and concerned citizens who objected to seeing any of the standards be made less stringent.
“People were disappointed that the Legislature decided to move backward on protection,” Rosser said. “ … That will continue to be an ongoing issue. We’re still going to press to see that the updates that are recommended to adequately protect the public health of West Virginians are adopted.”
The DEP’s proposed update of standards on pollutants into rivers and streams would adopt 24 of 94 updates proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Thirteen of those updates would weaken at least one category of existing standards, 11 of which, Mandirola said, would result in weakened standards for permits.
The plan to update the water quality standards, proposed by the DEP, dates back to 2018. The standards are up for DEP review every three years, per the federal Clean Water Act.
The DEP had proposed updating standards for 56 pollutants, some of which hadn’t been updated since the 1980s, based on recommendations the EPA made in 2015. But the committee removed those standard updates in 2018 after pushback from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, which has argued the DEP should use different human health criteria.
Department members and industrial and environmental representatives are working on updates to the remaining 32 pollutants they have not come to a consensus on, according to Mandirola.
Human health ambient water-quality criteria represent specific levels of chemicals or conditions in a body of water that are not expected to cause adverse effects to human health, per the EPA’s definition.