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Governor: Marcellus bill exciting achievement

December 22, 2011
By MANNIX PORTFIELD - Register-Herald Reporter , The Herald-Star

Months in the making, literally with a cast of hundreds, the Marcellus shale law regulating the new concept of horizontal drilling finally found its niche in West Virginia's code Wednesday.

Ending a four-day special session, and capping a seven-month task by a select legislative committee, the measure easily cleared the House of Delegates by a 92-5 vote, then unanimously in the Senate as it gave its assent to some minor tinkering.

"This is a monumental piece of legislation for West Virginia," House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, said at a news conference with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, and a large contingent of fellow lawmakers.

Among key provisions, the law imposes a 625-foot buffer zone between wells and dwellings occupied by humans and certain farm animals; calls on the Department of Environmental Protection to conduct studies of the potential harm by air, noise and chemical pollutants; hikes the permit fee for the initial well from $400 to $10,000 and $5,000 for subsequent wells on the same pad; and installs safeguards for cavernous regions, an element of particular concern in Greenbrier and Monroe counties.

"This is an exciting achievement in our state's history," Tomblin said, as delegates and senators flanked him at the news briefing.

Tomblin said he was pleased the arduous task was accomplished with bi-partisan toil.

"Unlike what happens in Washington, D.C., the Legislature worked long and hard together to create this milestone legislation," he said.

Tomblin said the fledgling Marcellus industry, tapping into a reserve of gas that stretches into New York, promises jobs and economic growth.

"West Virginia must maximize the opportunities presented by the Marcellus shale development," the governor said.

"Marcellus is the catalyst we need to launch new job opportunities throughout West Virginia. Many jobs have already begun. This legislation will spur many more."

Not everyone was pleased by the bill's passage.

Among those in dissent was David McMahon, head of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, who was displeased that Tomblin replaced the select committee's proposal with one of his own.

"We're truly disappointed this bill doesn't do very much to have the rights of surface owners recognized and respected," he said.

Tomblin told reporters he doesn't agree with critics that his proposal weakened the original one crafted by the 10-member select committee, which opened its mission back in early spring.

"It may not be the perfect bill, but we have a bill on the books that's going to give guidance to how we do Marcellus shale drilling in West Virginia," he said.

As with any controversial legislation, the House lent itself to a long discussion, but only two delegates spoke against the Marcellus proposal.

Chief opposition came from Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, who served notice he already has 20 bills designed for 2012 to beef up the law's provisions.

Manypenny wanted to expand the separation of wells and water sources from 250 to 650 feet, but Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said the key is to make sure casing is strong.

Otherwise, he said, it wouldn't make any difference if the wells are 2 miles away.

Manypenny wanted to revive the select committee's version and run with it, but was shot down by a heavily lopsided voice vote.

The delegate said the final version passed does "a poor job of respecting property rights of West Virginians."

"It sacrifices our land, our water, our air for a few bucks from the out-of-state, multi-national, multi-corporation companies," he charged.

"The governor's bill was cooked up in the back room by special interests and lobbyists who are not elected citizens of the state of West Virginia."

Manypenny then drew a parallel between the chamber and recent unrest in America's streets over the disparity in lifestyles of the struggling and the wealthy.

"Historically, the House of Delegates has always been the people's house, the 99 percent, not the special interests of the Senate and the executive branch, who historically have always represented the 1 percent," he said.

Miley countered that not anyone can get every single feature desired in any bill and that's why compromise is vital.

"We're not like Washington, D.C.," the judiciary chairman said.

"We have to compromise. We cannot take the 'my way or the highway' approach."

One other outspoken opponent, Delegate Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said the industry is already regulated by existing law and this new one merely puts a heavier burden on the Marcellus industry.

"Here we are at the threshold of a great opportunity in West Virginia and we get caught in this political vortex that we have do something," Carmichael said.

"Really, nothing is an alternative that would serve our citizens better."

Joining Manypenny and Carmichael in voting against the bill were Delegates Linda Goode Phillips, D-Wyoming; Troy Andes, R-Putnam; and Brian Savilla, R-Putnam.

Other provisions of the bill insist on a newspaper notice before a drilling rig is launched, at least a one-week notice before a landowner's property is surveyed, the ability to file public comments on the DEP's website, any additives used in the fracking processed must be identified to the agency, and pacts with the Division of Highways to restore roads scarred by drilling operations.

Even with mountains of paperwork that went into the varying versions, the hours invested by the select committee, and rhetoric in support or opposition, the Marcellus shale act likely will be revisited.

"Is this the be-all, the end-all that will ever happen?" asked Delegate Sam Cann, D-Harrison.

"I don't think so. This is the first bite of the apple."

Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, agreed that West Virginia lawmakers can expect to take up the issue again down the road.

"We have not seen the last of Marcellus shale," Caputo said.

"Nor should we."

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