Meanwhile, queries, complaints and Freedom of Information Act requests "were skyrocketing," and fee revenue "was tanking," he said.
One consequence is, "we have a pretty significant backlog of 225 horizontal permits pending," he said. "We're issuing a little over 400 a year so, all things being equal, that's over a half a year's worth of work, if we never received another application.
"We're in the process of hiring people, getting more engineers, tech people on staff," he said. "Permitting is now a three- or four-month process. I get calls from angry people. We're going to get it down to about 45 to 60 days. That's what you need to plan for. We'll get this fixed and get our arms around it by late summer or fall."
The regulatory bill passed by the Legislature late last year will go a long way toward curing the problems, Hoffman said.
During a panel discussion Mike McCown, northeast vice president for Gastar, a natural gas producer, said the state of the industry in Appalachia "is not very good" because the price of natural gas is at or near a 20-year low.
Drilling activity is way off, he said. In 2010 and 2011 more than 100 rigs were drilling in the Marcellus shale, he said. Activity peaked at 116 rigs. "In recent months the number of working rigs has decreased 20 percent," he said.
One problem is lack of demand for all of the natural gas that has come onto the market in the past few years, McCown said.
Steve Hedrick, head of Bayer CropScience's Institute Industrial Park, said one thing that can help spur demand is development of the pipelines needed to deliver the gas to customers.
"The chemical industry has historically chased those raw materials," he noted. "The last steam cracker in West Virginia was at Institute in the 1970s. The very first cracker was in Clendenin. That was based on the fact ethane was readily available. All of that moved to the Gulf Coast."
Hydraulic fracturing and other technologies that have allowed production of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale at low prices "should attract the chemical industry back," he said.
Jack Williams, president of XTO Energy, said his company is committed to "staying the course" and developing shale gas deliberately without regard to the industry's cyclical ups and downs. "We have a long-term focus," he said.
ExxonMobil bought XTO Energy in mid-2010. The combined company is the largest natural gas producer in the United States.
Williams said the company is active in all of the major shale fields in the nation - the Bakken, Permian Basin, Woodford-Ardmore, Fayetteville, Haynesville and Bossier, Barnett, and Marcellus an Utica shales.
ExxonMobil-XTO Energy has 735,000 acres in the Marcellus and Utica shales in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and in southern New York.
"We have four rigs active in the region now," Williams said. "I expect this will do nothing but increase." The company produces 180 million cubic feet equivalent of natural gas per day in the region, he said.
There weren't any environmentalists on the shale conference's program. Environmentalists issued a press release over the weekend saying that the Legislature's approval of a regulatory framework for the industry late last year was a sell-out to the industry.
The shale conference, which began on April Fool's Day, was a meeting of "Fossil Fools," the environmentalists said.Contact George Hohmann at 304 348-4836 or email him at busin...@dailymail.com