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Published: Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Page: 1A

Tomblin’s ‘tweaks’ attacked

In legislation proposed for this week's special session, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin removed or weakened a special committee's proposals for public input on natural gas drilling permits, protection of drinking water supplies and mandated standards for well casings.

Tomblin also eliminated language calling for an independent review of West Virginia's regulations on Marcellus Shale drilling, and added provisions that could hamper surface landowners in their dealings with drilling operators.

Those are among the more significant changes Tomblin's office made in reducing to 99 pages the 121-page bill lawmakers on a joint committee spent nearly 10 months crafting.

Industry officials are supporting the Tomblin-backed legislation, saying it provides them with clarity and certainty for what West Virginia's regulatory requirements will be as companies seek to tap into the Marcellus Shale reserves.

"We will recover this resource responsibly," Zack Arnold, West Virginia operations manager for Chesapeake Energy, told a public hearing Monday evening. "Our industry is committed to environmental excellence."

Tomblin said this bill is "landmark legislation that will be a significant step forward in the development of the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia."

"In drafting this legislation, my office has had one key goal in mind: Protecting the environment while providing clear rules to the natural gas industry so that they may continue to develop job opportunities and invest in West Virginia," Tomblin said in announcing the special session late last week.

But changes Tomblin made in the legislation left key citizen groups that had pushed for the special session - the West Virginia Environmental Council and the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization - both opposing the bill, and urging lawmakers to just start over in next year's regular session.

"We had several problems with the bill recommended by the Select Committee on Marcellus Shale," the surface owners' group said in a statement. "The governor's bill is MUCH worse and has way too many problems to begin to fix in a special session."

Among the significant changes in the governor's bill, compared to the legislation proposed by the Marcellus Shale committee:

n Public input: The committee bill required public notices be published for new drilling applications, and allowed Department of Environmental Protection to hold public hearings at the agency's discretion. The governor's bill requires DEP to set up a website and an email notification system for permit applications, but does not mandate notices in local newspapers or allow DEP to hold public hearings.

n Monitoring jobs: The committee bill required companies to disclose information about the residency of their workforce, to answer questions about whether gas industry jobs were going to West Virginians. The governor's bill eliminates that requirement, instead mandating a government study of the issue.

n Denying permit: The governor's bill eliminated language that would have allowed DEP to deny permits based on concerns about proximity to water supplies, municipalities and densely populated areas, impact on water tables, public resources and natural landmarks.

n Drilling pits: The governor's bill allows drilling pits, with drill cuttings and other associated drilling wastes, to be buried on site - rather than removed for proper disposal elsewhere.

n Permit fees: The committee bill allowed the DEP to enact future permit fee changes through rulemaking, rather than an act of the Legislature. The governor removed that language.

n Surface owner rights: The governor's bill on horizontal wells removes a declaration that the rights of surface owners are equal to those of mineral owners.

n Well casings: Many specifics about the specifications for well casings - a key to preventing water pollution - will be set by DEP under the governor's bill, rather than spelled out in legislation, as the committee had proposed.

n Study of state regulations: The governor's bill removes language from the committee that would have sought an updated and independent study of West Virginia's regulation of the natural gas industry.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.

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