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Committees Pass Marcellus Bill

December 13, 2011
By JOSELYN KING Political Writer With AP Dispatches , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING - Legislation establishing regulatory policy over the Marcellus Shale industry in West Virginia could see passage in the state Senate today.

Senate Bill 4001 passed out of the Senate's Judiciary and Finance committees by voice vote Monday, but Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, thought the process might be moving too quickly. He opted not to hold a vote on the legislation before the full body Monday night, and to give senators a night to review the bill.

The Senate convenes at 10 a.m. today.

"While we're interested in passing it through, I want to make sure there are no technical errors that would make them call us back," Kessler said. "It has moved quickly today. We'll just sleep on it and review it tomorrow. Hopefully, it will then be up for rules suspension and passage."

The House version of the Marcellus legislation - House Bill 401 - was introduced Sunday in the House. It received the first of its three required readings before being assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.

On Monday, Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, questioned that procedure.

"It seems a little unconstitutional," she said. "It does make me curious. Why are they trying to do this quickly? It's not that I want to waste time ... "

She also pointed out the time for a public hearing on the matter at 4:30 p.m. Monday was announced late Sunday.

"It's unfortunate that most drilling happens far from Charleston," Storch said. "I don't think there was an opportunity for those living in Wetzel and Marshall counties to request a day off and come down where the activity is occurring."

She said the changes to the legislation did seem to benefit the gas and natural gas industries at a time when West Virginia is trying to get an ethane cracker facility, or "maybe two."

"It's a good start," Storch said. "It gives the industry an idea of what rules will be in West Virginia. They don't want to invest too much money then find out things they didn't anticipate."

More than 65 signed up to speak during the public hearing in the House Monday.

Drilling industry interests spoke in support of the legislation, even though they oppose new permit fees stipulated in the measure. They said they favor the bill because it eliminates "uncertainty" surrounding Marcellus policy in West Virginia. Some hinted during the hearing they could invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the state.

Environmental and surface owner groups, meanwhile, said the legislation now before lawmakers was "gutted" from what was earlier negotiated.

"When no one is happy, it's probably a decent bill or at least a starting bill," said Jason Webb, representing the West Virginia Land and Mineral Owners Association, who spoke in favor of the measure.

Several of Monday's amendments aimed to improve language addressing prior notice of drilling to surface owners and the public.

One requires at least seven days notice, up from 72 hours, before survey crews can enter property of a proposed well site. Others increase the number of wells exempted from all or some of the bill's rules.

The committee kept permit fees at $10,000 for an initial well and $5,000 for each additional well at that initial site.

The Department of Environmental Protection estimated the fees would provide $2.4 million annually. That would allow the agency to erase a $311,641 deficit in its oil and gas office while providing the $1.3 million needed to hire 14 more well inspectors and office support staff, Secretary Randy Huffman told the lawmakers.

A special House-Senate committee endorsed draft Marcellus legislation in November after several months of meetings and public hearings. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin then modified that draft before calling the special session, which began Sunday.

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