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.

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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.

Gazette statehouse reporter Alison Knezevich reports this morning that West Virginia lawmakers are significantly scaling back any efforts to regulate the boom in Marcellus gas drilling across the state. As Alison explained:

The House Judiciary Committee cut a more than 200-page bill on Marcellus issues down to 33 pages. The Senate Energy, Industry & Mining Committee whittled 180 pages down to about 60.

The pending bills (HB2878, SB424) address permit fees, environmental regulations, and protections for property owners, among other topics related to the state’s natural gas boom.

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said the House bill was “narrowed down to the issues we could really agree on with the so-called stakeholders.”

Alison also reported:

On the House floor Thursday morning, Delegate Barbara Fleischauer read her colleagues a news report from Washington County, Pa., where three workers were injured Wednesday night in a fiery explosion at a Chesapeake Energy drilling site.

The Monongalia County Democrat urged them to pass legislation that would fund inspectors and protect the environment and workers.

“We don’t have to ask permission from the gas companies to protect the public,” she said. “That’s not our job. Our job is to protect the public.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers are putting on the fast track another piece of legislation, HB3099, giving tax breaks aimed at encouraging spin-off businesses related to Marcellus drilling.

One of the more interesting things about this bill is the Fiscal Note, which projects the legislation won’t cost the state a cent — because it doesn’t examine how much the potential tax breaks would amount to, instead focusing only on this:

Although this legislation contains several incentives designed to attract energy related industries as well as promote the use of alternative fuel supplies , it does not have any specific effects on the cost operations of the Development Office or the Division of Energy.

Acting Governor Earl Ray Tomblin speaks to an assembly of state legislators, distinguished guests, and public officials, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011, in Charleston, W.Va., during the State of the State address. (AP Photo/Howie McCormick)

Acting W.Va. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is certainly on the Marcellus Shale bandwagon … but he’s not bought into efforts by his own Department of Environmental Protection to come up with better regulation of the gas drilling industry.

In his State of the State address tonight, Tomblin offered these remarks about the Marcellus Shale, just after his long pledge of allegiance to the state’s coal industry:

West Virginia’s economic future lies not only in its continued use of coal as a resource. Lying just a mile below the surface of much of our State is a rock formation called the Marcellus Shale. This formation is rich in natural gas and new technology and techniques have made access possible for the oil and gas industry.

The development of the Marcellus Shale formation for natural gas production is an economic development opportunity for the State, and we need to embrace it! Billions of dollars of private capital have already been invested in this activity and with it has come many jobs.

Tomblin noted today’s announcement by Dominion Energy that has selected a 56-acre site in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle for the construction of a plant to process natural gas from hundreds of producers tapping the rich Marcellus shale:

This project will allow for significant development opportunities in West Virginia. And it is not only about the production of natural gas. The development of the Marcellus Shale has the potential to restart the manufacturing industry in West Virginia. It is an opportunity that we simply cannot let go by.

WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman has previously made it clear that his proposal for an entirely new regulatory system for oil and gas drilling — and new permit fees to double the number of state inspectors — is his agency’s proposal, not the acting governor’s bill.

Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy told me this evening:

I was amazed he didn’t mention that DEP has been meeting with many of us over the past several months about the needs they have for more inspectors and better regulations to protect our state. He never even mentioned it. That’s a slight of what I would consider good efforts by DEP to address the problems that we all know exist.

Citizens concerned about water standards rule

We had a story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail about what is expected to be the biggest environmental issue debated during this year’s session of the West Virginia Legislature: Potential reform of oil and gas drilling permitting and enforcement regulations.

But the West Virginia Environmental Council reminds us today that there’s another lingering issue that citizen groups are concerned about:

Every three years each state is required by the federal Clean Water Act to update its water quality standards. It’s called the Triennial Review process, and it’s an integral part of the Clean Water Act’s attempt to ensure that state water quality standards are protective of human health and the environment. Water quality standards are basically the amounts of various pollutants that are allowed to be dumped into our rivers and streams. These standards determine just how clean – or how dirty – our water will be.

DEP is proposing a statewide water quality standard for “Total Dissolved Solids” (TDS) of 500mg/l measured in-stream. This is stronger than Pennsylvania’s standard of 500mg/l which is measured only at public water supply in-takes. However, it is twice as high as the 250mg/l that EPA recommends as the Human Health Standard for total dissolved solids. While WVEC believes the state should adopt the stronger EPA standard, it absolutely should not adopt a weaker standard than is proposed in this rule.

The rules proposal is on the agenda for a meeting this evening of the Joint Legislative Rulemaking-Review Committee.

WVDEP wants to double oil and gas staff

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has what amounts to a final draft of its proposed new oil and gas drilling legislation, and I’m told that Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has signed off on the package.

The bill won’t be a governor’s bill, but Tomblin has given WVDEP the OK to seek its own sponsor and to work toward passage when lawmakers come to town next week for the start of the session. (See previous posts about the upcoming debate on oil and gas drilling legislation here, here and here).

Chief among the WVDEP’s hopes for the bill — which I’ve posted here — is approval of a new special fee on horizontal wells that would provide enough money for the agency to double the size of its oil and gas office staff.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said yesterday:

We’ve got to have these people and to do that we’ve got to have money.

Some readers may recall that WVDEP’s small inspection staff for drilling operations — just 18 inspectors statewide — drew the attention last year of the ongoing investigation of oil and gas issues by ProPublica.

Under Huffman’s proposal, WVDEP would add 34 people to its oil and gas office’s current staff of 32, including doubling the number of inspectors to 36.

WVDEP’s ‘rough and raw’ drilling legislation

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.

Vicki Smith over at The Associated Press had the story the other day summarizing the latest draft of oil-and-gas drilling legislation under consideration by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection:

The Department of Environmental Protection wants natural gas companies to submit comprehensive water management plans, including lists of chemicals to be used, when applying for future permits to drill horizontal wells in the Marcellus shale field.

A 100-page draft of proposed legislation provided to The Associated Press late Friday shows the DEP wants companies to identify not only when, where and how much water they withdraw for drilling operations. The department also wants to know what chemicals companies use in hydraulic fracturing, how much wastewater they produce, and when and where they would dispose of the waste.

This is all part of a review of the WVDEP’s handling of oil and gas issues launched by agency Secretary Randy Huffman a while back.

I’ve had a couple of requests for copies of the draft legislation that Vicki wrote about, and WVDEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco was kind enough last week to provide a copy to the Gazette. It’s not clear if WVDEP plans to post the document on the agency’s Web site. I asked Kathy about that and she told me:

This is a very rough draft of legislation DEP is trying to pursue. Because we expect it will change a few times before we actually submit it to the legislature, I don’t know if we will be posting it yet or not. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

So what the heck … I’ll just go ahead and post the 100-page document here.

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Money and elections

I didn’t post this until after yesterday’s primary was over, because I didn’t want anyone to think that I was trying to influence voters in any way. But the National Institute on Money in State Politics released a couple of interesting studies recently that examined the intersection of money, incumbency and politics in state legislative elections.

Incumbents who also had a fundraising advantage won 96 percent of the time in the 2007-08 election cycle, according to Peter Quist’s study, The Role of Money and Incumbency in 2007-2008 State Elections. In one-third of the races, incumbents ran unopposed.

Challengers who failed to raise more money than the officeholder won only 8 percent of the time. However, when they did manage to build a bigger war chest, challengers won 53 percent of the time, according to the study.

Moreover, the success rate for incumbents has been slowly creeping upward, from 89 percent in 2001-02 to 92 percent in 2003-04 and 2005-06 to 94 percent in 2007-08. The winning percentage for candidates with the money advantage has been relatively stable, though: 82 percent in 2001-02; 84 percent in 2003-04; 83 percent in 2005-06; and 80 percent in 2007-08.

The other study, Tyler Evilsizer’s Competitiveness in 2007-2008 State Legislative Races, notes that only 22 percent of candidates nationwide had a monetarily competitive race, i.e. where the candidates raised similar amounts of money.

As for West Virginia, roughly a quarter (26.5 percent) of the 117 legislative races in 2008 were monetarily competitive, while 44 percent weren’t competitive, and 29 percent were uncontested. You can see a national map here.

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Bill to cap MIC storage pulled from agenda

Photo by Tom Hindman, Charleston Daily Mail, via AP

West Virginia lawmakers had been scheduled this afternoon to take up legislation that would put a stringent cap on the amount of deadly methyl isocyanate that could be stored at chemical plants across the state.

But House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, pulled the bill from the committee’s agenda at the last minute. Committee members were told that the legislation “had not been fully vetted” and that lawmakers “did not have time to come to an informed decision” about the bill.

Of course, this bill was introduced formally only on Monday. But lawmakers from Kanawha County have been talking about it since the session started in mid-January.

The bill is aimed at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W.Va., which for decades has maintained a large stockpile of MIC.

Minard works to weaken WVDEP’s new drilling rules

We reported back in mid-January that the state Department of Environmental Protection’s new oil and gas drilling rules had advance without any weakening amendments from the industry … At least the West Virginia Environmental Council thought so, but it turns out they — and we — were wrong.

minard_joseph.jpgIn this weekend’s Green Legislative Update, the council’s lead lobbyist explained that Sen. Joe Minard, D-Harrison, quietly worked out a deal with the WVDEP to modify the rules. The deal provides a big loophole that would allow drillers to avoid using impermeable synthetic liners for drilling pits. According to Garvin:

While the Rule-Making Review Committee was considering other rules, the Senate Chairman of the committee, Joe Minard (D-Harrison) went out in the hall and huddled together with industry lobbyists, and DEP staff.

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West Virginia lawmakers have advanced out of their joint rulemaking committee a new set of Department of Environmental Protection rules to govern oil and gas drilling operations across the state.

The move sets up a potentially huge legislative battle if industry lobbyists (and there are plenty of them)  decide to fight the WVDEP proposal, especially given the previous unwillingness of Legislators to ask tough questions about this issue.

Don Gavin, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, told me this afternoon that he was surprised industry didn’t push to weaken the rule during today’s committee meeting. The rule emerged as WVDEP had proposed it. But, Garvin added:

The trick now will be to get it through the session that way.

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