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Public weighs in on natural gas drilling

February 26, 2011
The Herald-Star

CHARLESTON (AP) - Concerned residents repeatedly warned delegates about environmental damage from drilling into the Marcellus Shale natural gas field during a public hearing on Feb. 17, while supporters urged them to consider the jobs and other economic benefits at stake.

Many of the more than 50 people who signed up to speak at a House Chamber public hearing raised concerns about contaminated drinking water, erosion and ruined roads. Lawmakers were also urged to impose strong rules governing where operators drill, how they truck in need gear and supplies, and what they do with the large volumes of water involved in the process.

"This is a historic moment in our state," said Brynn Kusic, who described herself as a West Virginia native and young mother. "The delegates in this room are in a position to create legislation to protect our future generations."

The rights of surface and mineral owners, who would lease or sell their property to operators, was also a topic. Speakers offered differing views on forced pooling, which would require holdout owners to grant access to their property but be compensated as well.

The Marcellus field is a vast rock formation buried a mile beneath West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and portions of Ohio, Maryland and Virginia. It is believed to hold trillions of cubic feet of trapped natural gas.

But with the enormous potential yield and accompanying profits come up-front costs. Operators employ an unconventional horizontal drilling method. They must then pump in high volumes of water, chemicals and sand to crack open the rock and release the gas.

Whether that hydraulic fracturing process threatens water supplies became a topic of debate during the 75-minute hearing. Challenging such allegations, industry supporters also cited the jobs and tax revenues that accompany drilling and well operations.

Scott Rotruck, an executive with Chesapeake Energy, said he welcomes a well-funded and staffed regulatory system. Besides direct jobs, Rotruck cited potential uses for what's left over from refining the gas. Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has named Rotruck to a task force aimed at attracting employers who convert the liquid byproduct ethane into the widely used compound ethylene.

"The Marcellus shale presents a tremendous economic development opportunity," Rotruck said. "(It) can lead to a whole lot of downstream opportunities."

Steve Conlon of Wetzel County asked lawmakers who question the need for new rules to consider why so many rural resident would travel hours to Charleston to weigh in on this subject.

A small agribusiness owner, Conlon says he also leases gas rights and believes the drilling can be done right.

"You're two or three years behind," Conlon said. "The gas guys in the gas fields need to be watched."

Besides industry groups, the West Virginia Farm Bureau touted the economic benefits of Marcellus drilling during the hearing but expressed concerns over forced pooling.

Opponents of forced pooling compare it to eminent domain with the difference being that instead of government entities taking over property for public projects, natural gas drillers would be allowed to use the property for their own benefit.

But supporters of forced pooling say it protects property owners against a practice by gas drillers known as rule of capture, which can exclude the owners from drilling agreements and leave them uncompensated.

The state's League of Women Voters and Council of Churches joined environmental groups in urging tough rules and oversight.

A recent industry-funded study counted more than 2,800 state permits issued for Marcellus wells, and found that drilling is under way in 45 of the 55 counties.

In Brooke County, Chesapeake Energy has received permits to drill at four sites in Bethany and West Liberty.

Officials with the natural gas driller also have approached the Brooke County Board of Education and Brooke Hills park board about drilling near the park and Franklin Primary School.

The House Judiciary Committee has been studying a wide-ranging regulatory bill through a subcommittee, and was expected to act on a measure this week. Its Senate counterpart also began reviewing legislative proposals last week.

(Staff writer Warren Scott contributed to this story.)

(Staff writer Warren Scott contributed to this story.)

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