As of this writing (several days before publication), it looked like Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was poised to call the legislature into special session to adopt laws governing drilling for natural gas.
The session would take place between Dec. 11 and 17. Legislators are already scheduled to be in Charleston for interim committee meetings Dec. 12 through 14.
The Marcellus Shale natural gas field underlies western New York, central and western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and most of West Virginia (all but Jefferson and Berkeley counties). It may (we're not sure yet) also lie under portions of far southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee. It's over a mile deep in the earth (two miles at some points) and getting this gas requires a much more aggressive form of drilling than has yet been done in this region of the country. Most people believe we need stronger gas drilling rules on the books before a large number of wells are begun.
But what rules do we need? I'm not sure. There is much we don't know about the effects of what is called "hydraulic fracturing" ("fracking" to folks who pay regular attention to it). This involves charging chemically treated water at speeds beyond hypersonic into the earth to "fracture" layers of rock to get to the gas.
How fast is the water sent into the earth? What are the chemicals involved? What happens to the water (and the chemicals) after the rock is fractured? I don't know. The industry says that this kind of drilling is safe, as long as the wells are properly constructed. Even if that's true, what constitutes "proper construction?" Again, I don't know.
Compounding the environmental issues is the tragic fact that in West Virginia owners of the minerals are in many cases different than the owners of the surface of the land. Mineral rights were bought (in many cases many years ago) for little more than a song from folks who had no understanding of their value. The law gives owners of minerals the right to get those minerals, even if it requires disturbing the surface.
So the question of surface owners' rights is a major consideration in the debate over Marcellus.
An interim committee has been working since early summer to come up with a proposed bill to regulate Marcellus drilling. Our Sen. Herb Snyder is a member of that committee.
The committee voted on a recommended bill during the November interim committee meetings. The bill passed 11-1, the one dissenting vote coming from Sen. Karen Facemeyer of Jackson County. Sen. Facemeyer said she thought the rules in the bill were too strong for the industry. I disagree. I think that the rules need to be stronger.
For example, the bill prohibits drilling within 625 feet of an existing water well. That was a compromise between 250 feet (desired by the industry) and 1,000 feet (desired by environmentalists). I believe in compromise, but I think in this case we should err on the side of caution, at least until we know more about how these wells are going to work.
The bill calls for a permit fee of $10,000 for the first well drilled on a given piece of property and $5,000 for each additional well. The industry says that's too high. I think it's too low. Fees from drilling permits are where we will get the money for the many additional inspectors the state will have to hire and train to make sure wells are drilled and operated properly.
Having said all this, I'm prepared to vote for the interim committee's bill. While I would like it to be stronger, we need as much regulation we can get as soon as we can get it. Our failure to pass a bill will not slow down the rush to drill. It's better to have some regulation on the books than none at all. We can always try to make the regulation stronger later.
If we cannot get a bill passed I think we should declare a moratorium on Marcellus drilling. But there is little support for that in the legislature. About a dozen legislators (myself included) signed a call for a moratorium last March. But that's all the signatures we could get.
Clearly we need to be able to get this gas. Natural gas is, while not as pristine as solar power, much cleaner than oil or coal. But we need to get it without damaging the environment or unduly interfering with the ability of the owners of the surface of the land to use their property.
- Delegate John Doyle is a regular columnist for The Chronicle. His opinions are his own and not those of the paper's. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.