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W.Va. regulators craft new set of drilling rules

Jun. 21, 2011 @ 10:45 PM

CHARLESTON -- West Virginia environmental regulators want lawmakers to focus on well sites, water management and permit fees as they consider rules for Marcellus shale natural gas drilling, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The Department of Environmental Protection is drafting legislation covering those bases, paring down what it presented for this year's regular session, spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said. Out is language addressing such topics as forced pooling, which involves drilling in areas with multiple mineral rights owners, and the rights of surface owners, she said.

"We focused specifically on environmental issues," Cosco said. "We've removed from our version any mention of surface owner issues, except those that have environmental implications. Those are likely still in there."

The regular session bill died after substantial amendments in both chambers. Department Secretary Randy Huffman criticized lawmakers Tuesday for its fate. He told a Morgantown conference on Marcellus issues that the changes disregarded provisions developed by his staff during the better part of the year.

The new draft will also propose hiking permit fees above their current rate, which is usually around $600, but not likely as high as the $10,000 proposed in the regular session bill, Cosco said. DEP's goal is enough funding for eight to 10 more inspectors -- the department now has 17 positions -- along with additional office staff, she said.

Huffman agreed that the fee amount could prove a sticking point as a new House-Senate select committee attempts to find a compromise that can pass in special session. The industry argues that fees higher than those charged in other Marcellus states would make West Virginia less competitive.

The Marcellus shale field, stretching a mile beneath the surface, presents the greatest natural gas reserve discovery in a generation, the industry believes. Tapping the formation can require an unconventional horizontal drilling method. It can also involve pumping large volumes of water mixed with chemical and sand into wells to crack the rock. Both this hydraulic fracturing process and the drilling present new issues for regulators, along with environmental concerns.

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