Does the industry want a Marcellus bill?

November 10, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

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.

We had a story in today’s Gazette quoting a clearly frustrated Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, questioning whether there’s time left for lawmakers to finish up a consensus Marcellus Shale drilling bill and get it passed during a special session before the end of the year:

Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, is co-chairman of a House-Senate committee that’s been working on the legislation since a Marcellus bill died at the end of the regular session in early March. Manchin has been trying to work out a compromise bill that would have industry support. Gov.-elect Earl Ray Tomblin has made that a condition for his calling a special session.

“We have come down to the wire,” Manchin said in an interview this week. “I think the public really wants and deserves a bill.”

Lawmakers scheduled an unusual Sunday morning committee meeting to try to work out four proposed amendments, including likely contentious language aimed at protecting and compensating surface landowners and at expanding the ability of state regulators to deny new drilling permits.

But after that meeting, Manchin says, committee members would need to approve the overall bill during a meeting Wednesday if they hope to get a special session scheduled to coincide with December interim meetings. Manchin said he’s been told industry officials and some Senate committee members want to slow down that process.

“We’re going to miss any chance of having a special session,” Manchin said. “I’m deeply concerned, but cautiously optimistic.”

I talked to officials from two industry groups, and neither offered much in the way of optimism, both saying that the original legislation — as amended by Manchin’s committee — was not acceptable.  Of course, Gov.-elect Earl Ray Tomblin — whose administration admitted they were using industry lobbyists as consultants on their Marcellus drilling executive order — has said he won’t call a special session unless there’s consensus on the bill, effectively meaning that industry gets to decide if and how it’s regulated.

But Tim Manchin seems utterly unconvinced that some folks in the industry want any bill at all:

At the beginning of this, I thought industry wanted a bill. Now, I don’t think they want a bill.

There remains a lot of hope from some that the Marcellus Shale boom could be a major win for West Virginia, despite questions about whether this would just lead to more of the same old boom-bust economic cycles our state has lived with since its birth and despite the growing questions being asked by scientists about whether natural gas is an appropriate “bridge fuel” between the current reliance on coal and some future built on renewables. Supporters point to the rather simplistic studies by West Virginia University and others projecting huge numbers of jobs that the Marcellus and related industries — such as a cracker plant — could bring. They aren’t as interested in looking at questions about those studies, and developing a broader look at the potential benefits and costs of this sort of industrial boom.

Some political leaders, especially U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin seem somehow intent on using the potential for the Marcellus Shale as more leverage in their efforts to shoot down tougher federal regulations of our state’s extractive industries. Manchin recently argued that the Obama administration is against increasing drilling in the Marcellus Shale, telling a WVU College of Law seminar:

Not only is this administration ignoring the fact that coal built this nation — and provides nearly half of our electricity — they are missing the tremendous potential of the shale resources in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and the rest of the region. They’re so determined to demonize fossil fuels that they ignore the vast, untapped resources waiting to be developed right here at home, which could reduce this nation’s dependence on foreign oil and create good-paying, American jobs.

In fact, the Obama administration has been pushing natural gas, citing largely the (potentially incorrect) conventional wisdom that it produces half the greenhouse gases as coal. The administration’s “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” said:

America’s oil and natural gas supplies are critical components of our Nation’s energy portfolio. Their development enhances our energy security and fuels our Nation’s economy. Recognizing that America’s oil supplies are limited, we must develop our domestic resources safely, responsibly, and efficiently, while taking steps that will ultimately lessen our reliance on oil and help us move towards a clean energy economy.

But the draft report of a Department of Energy advisory committee on natural gas drilling made clear the potential downsides and the need for additional protections:

There are serious environmental impacts underlying these concerns and these adverse environmental impacts need to be prevented, reduced and, where possible, eliminated as soon as possible. Absent effective control, public opposition will grow, thus putting continued production at risk. Moreover, with anticipated increase in U.S. hydraulically fractured wells, if effective environmental action is not taken today, the potential environmental consequences will grow to a point that the country will be faced a more serious problem.

Intensive shale gas development can potentially have serious impacts on public health, the environment and quality of life – even when individual operators conduct their activities in ways that meet and exceed regulatory requirements. The combination of impacts from multiple drilling and production operations, support infrastructure (pipelines, road networks, etc.) and related activities can overwhelm ecosystems and communities.

The Subcommittee believes that federal, regional, state and local jurisdictions need to place greater effort on examining these cumulative impacts in a more holistic manner; discrete permitting activity that focuses narrowly on individual activities does not reach to these issues.

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