Sustained Outrage

West Virginia Sen. President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, just finished a press conference called to announce his administration’s plan for emergency regulations governing Marcellus Shale gas drilling. Tomblin said:

This executive order is the first step in my long-term plan to ensure responsible development of Marcellus Shale. The good-paying jobs predicted with this development must include the protection of our public’s health and safety as well as that of our environment. I want to thank our citizens who have voiced their concerns about Marcellus Shale drilling and want to assure them that I recognize this emerging segment of the natural gas industry warrants my immediate attention to ensure responsible development.

The first thing worth knowing about the event is that Mr. Tomblin spent quite a bit of his introductory remarks — at an event he called to announce his plan for protecting the environment — criticizing efforts to protect the environment.  Perhaps when he’s acting as governor, Mr. Tomblin just can’t possibly pass up any opportunity to attack the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to limit the damaging impacts of mountaintop removal mining. He took time out from talking about Marcellus drilling to say:

… They have allowed the EPA to spent out of control. Because of their over-reaching rulemaking, the EPA is killing jobs, which is hurting the economy of America. Washington … needs to take control of the EPA before it does further damage.

Also fascinating is that the acting governor’s executive order directing WVDEP to promulgate emergency rules was made available on the website of a gas industry group’s website well before it was posted on any of the state government’s sites.

You have to wonder if citizens and environmentalists who are concerned about the industry and its political influence will find this very comforting as they review what Tomblin and the WVDEP are proposing.

Among the items that are to be included in the WVDEP’s emergency rules:

— Erosion and sediment control plans for certain drilling permits would have to be certified by a registered professional engineer. Larger sites would have to be  constructed under an engineer’s supervision;

— All well permits applications must specify the amount of water to be used in drilling and fracturing, and larger operations must submit formal “water management plans”;

— Any permit applications for drilling within a municipality or within a one-mile radius of any municipality must publish a public notice of their permit application.

The executive order also says:

The WVDEP shall evaluate its overall regulatory authority over drilling activities related to horizontal wells … and shall identify additional areas of critical concern, including, but not limited to well construction and design standards, air emissions, drilling cutting management, recycling of produced fluids and water management.

Interestingly, the executive order says:

The WVDEP shall take steps necessary to increase the regulatory oversight of practices and equipment to further ensure that no pollutants are disposed of or discharged into waters of this state in violation of any applicable state or federal water quality standards and effluent limitations.

But, Tomblin also said at today’s press conference that there are no plans at the moment to add any additional WVDEP oil and gas inspectors. Tomblin said:

I think that we will do the best we can with the inspectors that we have in the field now.

And WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman said:

This is a ramp-up process. It’s not something that will happen overnight.

Of course, the shortage of inspectors at the WVDEP Office of Oil and Gas has been a chronic problem that agency critics say needs to be solved if any new regulation of drilling is to work.

Another interesting question is whether these new rules — which WVDEP could issue within the next 30 days — would be applied to existing permits or not.

Randy Huffman told reporters:

That’s a good question. If they’re new ones, obviously it would impact new applications. If a site has already been permitted, it would be difficult to go back and make that retroactive. We haven’t thought that through yet.

But then Tomblin spoke up:

Going back and changing those would have the same effect as EPA’s revocation of the Spruce No. 1 permit.

You can listen to raw audio of the press conference here: