A few years ago a large natural gas field was discovered several thousand feet under the Allegheny Mountains and their western foothills.
This field, known as the "Marcellus Shale," has presented prospects for increased economic development in an area that has been well behind the rest of the nation in wealth for many years. It has also presented the prospect of serious environmental problems.
On both of these counts it seems eerily similar to the situation in this same region of the country in the early part of the 19th century, when the "coal boom" was beginning. From 1900 to 1950 West Virginia's population approximately doubled to almost 2.2 million people.
That increase was due almost exclusively to the development of the coal industry and the manufacturing industry that grew as a result of the coal industry. Since 1950 our state's population dropped to 1.7 million in 1970 and has now climbed back up to 1.85 million in 2010.
Almost all of West Virginia sits on top of the Marcellus Shale. I've seen several maps of the Marcellus and each differs somewhat from the others. Some counties are in the Marcellus region on some maps and out of it on others. Only Jefferson and Berkeley counties clearly do not overlie the Marcellus. The rest of the Marcellus region includes western and central Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, Southern New York state and small corners of western Maryland and southwest Virginia.
The Marcellus requires a much more aggressive form of drilling than is the case with fields much closer to the surface. Getting the Marcellus gas requires blasting through many more layers of rock than where we've been drilling. The preferred method for Marcellus is something known as "hydraulic fracturing." This is called "fracking" for short, and that particular nomenclature has spawned some interesting humor.
Fracking uses a combination of chemicals and water to blast through the rock. Many environmentalists are concerned about what might happen to groundwater during this process.
The industry says there is no danger to groundwater as long as the gas wells are properly constructed. Not being a scientist, I don't know if this is true or not. But even if it is, that leads us to a second concern. How do we know if a given well is properly constructed? Right now West Virginia has about a dozen and a half inspectors to check thousands of wells. That's not enough and thousands more will be constructed.
A third concern is a landowners issue. Some people only own the surface of "their" land. The owner of the mineral rights under the land has a legal right to disturb the surface to get at the gas. Marcellus wells occupy more space and the equipment required to build them disturbs the surface much more seriously than with the older wells.
Marcellus drilling damages the surface of the land more so than traditional drilling.
Which leads us to a fourth concern. The equipment transporting the well materials does a serious number on roads. Folks living in areas where Marcellus wells have already been drilled have complained loudly to their state legislators about this.
A fifth concern takes us back to landowners. Even if the owner of the surface of a piece of land also owns the mineral rights, that owner might see his or her gas taken for a price to which he or she did not agree. This is because the industry wants the state to OK a procedure known as "forced pooling." If the owner(s) of three quarters of the area overlying a particular pocket of gas agree to a price, the industry wants that price mandated to the remaining owner(s).
What to do about regulating and/or taxing drilling in the Marcellus was, I believe, one of the two most critically important things the Legislature had to do in this year's regular session. The other was getting a handle on "other post-employment benefits" (OPEB). We did neither.
The State Senate passed a Marcellus regulatory bill I regarded as weak. It did nothing about forced pooling and nothing about adding inspectors. But at least the Senate passed a bill. The House of Delegates did nothing, period.
The House Judiciary Committee sent out a bill that I thought was really quite strong. It severely restricted pooling and provided additional inspectors. That bill had a second reference to the Finance Committee, upon which I sit, and we OK'd it verbatim. It went to the full House but was kept from a final vote on the 60th (last) day of the session.
I think the reason for not bringing the bill up for a vote was that there was clearly no time for a House-Senate conference committee to work out the differences between the two bills. But had the bill been brought up for a vote it I think it would have passed the House and we would have a clear set of parameters within which to reach a compromise in a special session.
I have signed a petition along with several other legislators calling for a moratorium on the issuance of Marcellus drilling permits by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). I hope we can reach a compromise for a decent regulatory bill before the next regular session of the legislature (January 2012). Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has agreed to call a special session to deal with Marcellus regulation whenever he thinks we are within reach of a compromise. Stay tuned.