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W.Va. lawmakers get do-over for Marcellus rules

By Lawrence Messina

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia lawmakers are attempting to craft Marcellus shale regulations now, instead of waiting until next year's regular session, but whether they can agree on rules for developing this rich natural gas reserve remains to be seen.

Legislative leaders announced last week that they would form a special joint committee to tackle the issue. Acting Senate President Jeff Kessler named five of his members to the panel Friday, with Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, as co-chair. The House has not announced its picks.

The Legislature proved unable to pass a Marcellus bill during this year's 60-day regular session. An amended proposal from the state Department of Environmental Protection passed the Senate but idled in the House on the session's final day. An alternative measure drawn from the previous year's interim study meetings foundered in the House earlier in the session.

The new committee would operate amid this year's interim studies, with the hope of spurring acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to convene a special session.

"The governor has said and continues to say that if the Legislature comes to an agreement, he'd be willing to call a special session," Tomblin spokeswoman Kimberly Osborne said last week. "We're happy to look at any findings relating to that committee's work."

The weighty issue joins an array of monthly interim topics. But all are overshadowed by the legislative and congressional redistricting process prompted by the 2010 Census. Both legislative leaders and Tomblin now aim to complete new district maps during a special session that coincides with the Aug. 1-3 interim meetings. The Marcellus committee faces a tight timeframe if it's to arrive at a compromise capable of passage by then.

Lawmakers are revisiting Marcellus as local governments pursue their own ordinances targeting gas drilling in the absence of state-level action. The agenda of Tuesday's Morgantown City Council meeting includes a public hearing for a proposal barring either horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing within the city or a mile of its borders. Both the unconventional drilling method and "fracking," or the fracturing of shale with a high-pressure mix of water, chemicals and sand, help set Marcellus operations apart from others in the natural gas industry.

Wellsburg passed a similar ordinance last month, while Lewisburg adopted one along with a companion resolution in March. The Senate-passed Marcellus bill would have pre-empted "all local ordinances and enactments," and lawmakers on the select committee may revisit that language.

The creation of the House-Senate committee also follows the launch of a pro-industry public relations campaign, Just Below The Surface. Headed by the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, it aims to highlight the economic benefits from natural gas operations while also touting the potential of the Marcellus field.

While questioning the need to pursue the topic with a special session, association President Michael McCown said the industry appeared willing to support some new rules for fracking and horizontal drilling.

"There's adequate legislation and regulation in existence now," McCown told The Associated Press during the campaign's kickoff event. "We have talked about being supportive of reasonable additional regulation regarding Marcellus shale, and permit (fee) increases if they're warranted. We're open to additional inspectors. Our facilities are open, and can be inspected with the number of inspectors that we've got now at any time."

But environmental advocates want their concerns heard about the fracking process and its large volumes of chemical-tainted water. Also seeking a voice in the process are the owners of surface property that host or adjoin well sites. These sites can include large holding ponds for leftover frackwater, and require access roads regularly plied by heavy trucks.

Dave McMahon represents the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization. He cited how the stakeholders include both the gas industry's giants as well as the smaller operators that are part of McCown's group. Even the state's dominant coal industry, which also pursues its fossil fuel underground, can be affected by Marcellus legislation, he noted.

"Having all of them agree to what we need seems unlikely," McMahon said Saturday. "Probably our biggest fear is that there will be so much political pressure to do something that they will only be able to agree on window dressing and pass that which will take momentum away from the real changes that are needed."


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