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Poised to resume their efforts within three weeks, West Virginia lawmakers attempting to craft rules for Marcellus shale drilling were reminded this week why they proved unable to pass such a measure during the year's regular session.
A House-Senate committee charged with pursuing consensus fielded environmental concerns Wednesday that arise from tapping this rich natural gas reserve. But they earlier heard warnings that the continuing impasse threatens a potential economic boon for the state.
"I am not in favor of regulating the natural gas industry out of business," Sam Ameri, chairman of West Virginia University's Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering Department, said at Tuesday's committee meeting. "I think there is a fear factor, an unnecessary fear factor."
Some estimates rank the mile-deep Marcellus shale as one of the richest natural gas reserves in the world. West Virginia and other regional states that sit atop it stand to reap jobs, tax revenues and other economic gains, drilling advocates say. But getting to the gas can involve an unconventional horizontal drilling method, and the process of hydraulic fracturing or fracking. With that method, drillers pump a high-volume mix of water, sand and chemicals into the gas well to crack the shale.
Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion and the committee's co-chair, said the panel will start by studying the rules proposal that passed the Senate in the regular session but died in the House. The state Department of Environmental Protection had proposed that measure, but both chambers amended it. DEP has since begun drafting a scaled-down version of its regular session proposal.
On Tuesday, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered DEP to issue emergency rules, valid for up to 15 months, largely aimed at the water-related issues. Tomblin said he would convene a special session this year once the committee develops a compromise capable of passage.
Asking members to submit amendments as soon as possible, Manchin said work on a new bill would continue during each day of the Aug. 1-3 interim study meetings.
Lawyer David McMahon represents surface owners who live alongside well sites or lease their land for drilling. He told the committee Wednesday that the state should fund an independent study into whether these wells can contaminate area water supplies.
McMahon also showed the committee a snippet from a video he said was shot by a neighbor of a Marcellus well to chronicle its around-the-clock noise. While the Senate had proposed keeping wells 200 feet from homes during the regular session, McMahon supports a 1,000-foot buffer as found in the House's version.
McMahon provided photos of other wells sites to argue for greater protections of surface property and water supplies. He and fellow Wednesday speaker Don Garvin, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, also listed such other concerns as a shortage of DEP gas field inspectors.
Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton and Manchin's co-chair, questioned whether the examples invoked were extreme or cast drilling in the worst possible light.
"As a whole, I think the industry tries to do a good job," Facemire said. "You guys are trying to paint that as the norm. I don't think that's fair, to say that that is the norm."
Facemire noted that he has ties to the industry, through royalty payments. He also referred to Duke University's testing of water in 68 wells near hydraulic fracturing sites in Pennsylvania and central New York.
"I could not see, anywhere, where there was any sign of frack fluids in those wells," Facemire said.
The 2009 study found no signs of chemicals from fracking, but Garvin cited how it provided evidence of potentially dangerous concentrations of methane gas in that water.
"I think that the main conclusion of the study is that the drilling act itself is disturbing the shallow methane, not the fracturing," Garvin told Facemire.
Neighboring Pennsylvania has had several instances where methane leaking from poorly built wells has tainted water supplies, as have surface spills of frackwater. McMahon called for strict standards to ensure these wells are properly sealed once they're drilled. Tomblin's executive order tells DEP to address "casing, sealing or otherwise managing wells to keep fluids or natural gas from entering ground and surface waters."
Ameri, who on Tuesday outlined the science behind horizontal drilling and fracking, suggested that the committee consult competent petroleum engineers. He also asked lawmakers to have more faith in state regulators -- a point McMahon and Garvin took up with their Wednesday comments.
"When they give you a drilling permit, there's something called risk management. They study it, for crying out loud," Ameri had told the committee. "They study it. If the risks are high, they are not going to permit you to drill a well. This is why sometimes it takes six months to give you a drilling permit."
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