February 19, 2011
House Committee Holds Hearing on Marcellus Shale Drilling
On Thursday, more than 100 people from across the state packed the House Chamber to urge lawmakers to pass tougher regulations for Marcellus Shale and other gas well drilling. The House Judiciary Committee held the hearing to seek input on two comprehensive bills (HB 2878 & HB 3024) it is considering.
Marcellus Shale development is resulting in what can only be described as “the industrialization of rural West Virginia.” Because our oil and gas drilling laws have not been updated in nearly 30 years, this new boom in drilling (and the new technologies associated with it) is largely unregulated. There are also many problems with other (conventional) gas well drilling that need to be addressed.
We greatly appreciate all the folks who traveled to Charleston to share their personal stories and concerns and to show their support. They include SORO members Roberta Faulkes, Grace & Tom Lynch, George Monk & Molly Schaffnit, Elizabeth Mow, Paul Phillips, Nancy Powers and Eleanor Sporh. (There were so many people in attendance who share our interests, my apologies to any other SORO members who I may not have recognized and failed to mention. Please let me know if you were there.) Thanks also to those of you who sent comments to share with the committee. Many of them were read by volunteers and all were submitted to the committee for its consideration. Special thanks go to Steve Conlon, Bill Hughes, Ed Wade, Marty Whiteman and Sara Wood who came from Wetzel County to talk about how their lives have been affected by Marcellus Shale drilling.
Marty a farmer and surface owner told committee members that some of his farmland had been rendered useless by gas companies.
"When they came in, they told us we would not be affected at all, that this would be a minor inconvenience. It's been devastation. I'm the sacrificial lamb when it comes to all this," he said. "I thought this was America. I thought you when you bought a piece of property, you actually did own it."
Marty's daughter Sara spoke about how her 4-year old son was the first one to notice a foul odor coming from one of the gas wells near their home last August. Shortly after, their house became engulfed in a cloud of toxic gas. Several other families nearby complained about strong odors, vapors and health problems.
Air quality is a major issue in Wetzel and other counties experiencing heavy drilling activity. Many of the processes involved with this development release nitrogen oxide (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other potentially harmful substances into the air. However, DEP claims to have no authority to regulate emissions from gas well sites. And unfortunately, this issue is not addressed in either of the bills being considered. The DEP bill (HB 3024) contains general environmental protection performance standards that require drillers to control particulate matter, but his is the only mention of air quality issues in either bill.
After the hearing Sara told a reporter with WCHS-TV, "I'm tired of bathing my son in water and him breaking out in rashes." She says natural gas drilling around her Wetzel County home is making him extremely sick. "We don't drink our water. We don't know if it's polluted or not, but we're not going to take the chance," she said. You can watch and listen to Sara's interview here.
Special thanks also to Spencer Wooddell who talked about how high levels of methane had been discovered in several water supplies on his family farm since drilling began nearby. One drilling site is right on the the Wooddell's property line, about 200 feet from one of their water wells and a natural spring. However, some of the affected water sources are as far as 2,400 feet from the well site. Currently, drillers are only required to do pre-drilling tests for water wells and some springs within 1,000 feet of where a gas well enters the ground. The proposed Judiciary bill (HB 2878) would require the operator to conduct a pre-drilling test of the water supply, upon written request of any landowner residing within 5,500 feet but farther than 2,500 feet of a proposed gas well using hydraulic fracturing. Under the bill, testing parameters would also be expanded to include chemicals or chemical compounds commonly used in hydraulic fracturing.
An industrial spill at the same site, polluted the Wooddell's land in Taylor County. The spill went unreported to the DEP until the Wooddell's mechanic noticed lime on their property and hay bales from their fence line leading up to the well site. You can read more about it here.
Turn out for the hearing was great and it was covered well by the media (you can read more here, here and here) but we must keep the pressure on.
Many of you have your own stories that exemplify the need for legislation to protect citizens and the environment from Marcellus Shale and other gas well drilling. If you haven't already, please contact your legislators and tell them about what happened to you. Tell them what you think needs to be done to address problems related to both Marcellus Shale and conventional drilling. Visit http://marcellus-wv.com/ and click on "Take Action" to send a quick e-mail or click here for additional contact information for legislators. The Judiciary Committee will resume it's work on the bills next week and the deadline for bills to be out of committee is fast approaching.
A Note About Forced Pooling
In addition to the public hearing, there has been significant coverage of the issue of forced pooling. And as highlighted in this Charleston Daily Mail article, the issue has the potential to derail the bills currently being considered by the House Judiciary Committee.
Forced pooling is a good idea IF AND ONLY IF the statute offers proper protections for all interested parties and IF the statute is part of a variety of other reforms needed to protect surface owners and the environment. If it's done right, forced pooling for all gas wells, whether they are “shallow,” “deep” or horizontal, is a fairer and a more economically efficient way of producing resources that are not confined to boundaries of an individual driller’s or mineral owner’s property (or rights). It keeps unnecessary wells from being drilled on the surface and ensures that mineral owners whose gas is currently being legally stolen (under the "Rule of Capture") are compensated. (Click here for more background information on pooling and unitization (well spacing and royalty sharing.)
The provisions proposed in the DEP bill (HB 3024) are NOT good. They would allow drillers to force huge horizontal well sites on fee and surface owners and eliminate well spacing for some vertical Marcellus wells. They also failed to ensure that unleased/forced mineral owners are paid what a lessee would get. However a committee substitute is being crafted that combines parts of both bills. We are working to make the pooling provisions as protective of surface and mineral owners' interests as possible, so that we don't have to sacrifice other provisions needed to protect citizens and the environment. The political reality is such that any bill that passes the legislature this session that provides for better regulation of oil and gas drilling will likely contain pooling provisions.