Sustained Outrage

A natural gas well operated by Northeast Natural Energy, top, viewed from Morgantown on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/David Smith)

Here’s a report from the AP’s Larry Messina on yesterday’s legislative interim meeting:

West Virginia would expand the buffer zones between Marcellus shale wells and homes, livestock and drinking water through provisions added Wednesday to a regulatory proposal for the rich natural gas reserve.

The special House-Senate committee drafting the bill adopted the various buffer zones by a non-unanimous voice vote. Before recessing in advance of a meeting Thursday, the lawmakers also agreed they will reconsider drilling permit fee hikes approved last month. Industry groups have objected to the proposed $10,000 for an initial well and $5,000 for each additional well at that site. Natural gas operators now pay just a few hundred dollars for permits.

The committee’s goal remains a regulatory measure capable of passage during a special legislative session. Gov.-elect Earl Ray Tomblin has said he will convene one if the committee’s draft attracts sufficient consensus. Efforts to pass a Marcellus rules bill failed during this year’s regular session, prompting Tomblin to order temporary emergency standards from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Wednesday’s proposed buffer zones include one of 625 feet between the center of a well site and a residence or building that houses dairy cattle or poultry. The committee voted after hearing from Marion County resident Casey Griffith, who said the dream house he built with his wife has been ruined by a well site 200 or so feet away. Around-the-clock noise, dust churned up by well construction and waste gas burned off at the site are among his family’s concerns, he said.

“I swore I would never live anywhere but in West Virginia,” said Griffith, a lifelong state resident. “I don’t believe that any more.”

Brett Loflin, an executive with Northeast Natural Energy, agreed that he wouldn’t want a well 200 feet from his house. But he said buffers larger than 625 feet would unfairly hinder operators. Lawmakers had also considered buffers of 750 feet and 1,000 feet.

“The primary concern is sterilizing acreage, and just not being able to put a well anywhere,” Loflin told the committee.

The committee also agreed to allow the DEP secretary to increase this spacing if scientific evidence shows unacceptable health risks to residents of the nearby house. Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer proposed that amendment while also advocating without success for larger buffers.

“I don’t need any more data to know that I do not want my house to be 1,000 feet from the middle of a well pad, or 625 feet. That’s not where I want to live,” the Monongalia County Democrat said. “I agree with Mr. Griffith: that’s not the West Virginia that I love.”

Other provisions added Wednesday would keep wells 250 feet from drinking wells or springs, 1,000 feet from public water supply intake points and 300 feet from a recognized trout stream.

The proposed permit fees aim to provide DEP with enough revenue to hire the additional gas field inspectors and support staff needed for Marcellus operations. Lawmakers have been hoping for detailed cost estimates from the agency, to allow them to adjust those fees and ease industry concerns. But DEP Secretary Randy Huffman told the committee Wednesday that each change to the bill requires a new set of estimates.

Fleischauer and other lawmakers urged Huffman to provide at least some figures at Monday’s meeting.

“We need to know, and you’re the person who has to tell us how many inspectors you need and how much money it will take,” she said, adding that “You’ve had a lot of notice that we were working on this bill, and where we’re going with it.”