Sustained Outrage

WVDEP looking to beef up drilling permits

Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

Here’s a report just in from Vicki Smith at The Associated Press:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — The state’s top environmental official says West Virginia will likely need a two-tiered regulatory system to properly permit and monitor the proliferation of Marcellus shale and other horizontally drilled gas wells.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman said his agency’s ongoing review of the Division of Oil and Gas also suggests the state needs more rigorous oversight of horizontal drilling operations because complying with industry-accepted best management practices isn’t good enough.

Future permitting may require more detailed engineering, certifications and other “site-specific thought and planning,” Huffman told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.

Conventional, shallow drilling and deep horizontal Marcellus drilling are different industries, “and we’re recognizing that we may end up with two different regulatory programs — with a little overlap, but not a lot,” he said.

The two-tiered approach would spare conventional drillers an undue regulatory burden, he said.

The Marcellus shale field is a rich natural gas reserve underlying Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. The gas is locked in tightly compacted rock a mile underground, and freeing it requires horizontal drilling technologies.

In June, Huffman said the number of Marcellus wells being permitted was growing faster than the DEP’s ability to keep pace. Eighteen inspectors, he said, were not enough to handle both more than 1,000 new wells and tens of thousands of traditional wells.

Staffing levels and money to hire employees are part of the discussions Huffman’s staff has been having with stakeholders over the past two months. At Gov. Joe Manchin’s urging, Huffman will soon appoint a seven- to nine-member panel to try to find consensus on some issues in the months ahead.

Those appointments could be announced as early as next week, but Huffman said he will have the final say on recommendations that will be presented to Manchin in November and to legislators in January.

“Then everyone will have their right to defend their position during the legislative process,” Huffman said.

It will be difficult to narrow the group to nine or fewer people, he said, but it’s necessary.

“I have to carefully collect people and personalities that I know want progress on this issue and are not digging their heels in on one particular thing,” he said.

Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Gas Association, called the talks so far “extremely productive” and praised DEP’s willingness to hear the industry out.

“Not that we’re going to agree on everything,” he said, “but they see that we’re in a mode of, ‘We’ve just got to come up with a set of regulations we can live with.”’

The oil and gas industry is one of the top five income generators in West Virginia, he said.

“We may have to do things we don’t want to do or that are going to cost us a little bit of money but from the DEP’s standpoint will cause less of a problem with safety,” DeMarco said.

Dave McMahon of the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization said the meetings he’s attended have been too large to get much accomplished, but he’s encouraged by DEP’s willingness to address potential problems.

However, “New York declared a moratorium so they can understand the oversight this play needs,” he said. “So West Virginia is a little behind.”

Nor is the state giving much attention to problems with conventional wells, McMahon said.

“Marcellus and horizontal drilling do need more attention, but so do traditional wells,” he said.

West Virginia has some 55,000 active gas wells, as well as some 6,000 that need to be plugged to prevent pollution problems and legal difficulties for surface owners, McMahon said.

“The state has almost no time to spend getting those wells plugged,” he said, “and here we are spending all our time on new permits. That shows the need for more staffing and oversight.”