DEP: Drilling Rules Sound

WHEELING – His office receives daily complaints about Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling activity, but West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman said state regulations are sound.

Having 30 inspectors in the Office of Oil and Gas, compared to just 18 about two years ago, Mountain State regulators now have a much better grasp of what frackers are doing than they did previously, he said.

“I really am confident we are regulating at the proper level,” he said Thursday during the 2013 West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association conference at Oglebay Park. “What we have been doing has been working.”

Huffman said the staff level in the Office of Oil and Gas, the division of DEP responsible for issuing drilling permits, is now at 48. This includes the 30 inspectors, 15 permit writers and three administrators. He said the office receives an average of 55 new well work applications per month, while issuing a roughly equal number in an effort to avoid a backlog.

“The hardest part is keeping these positions filled,” Huffman said. “It takes a lot of time to get people trained.”

Some residents complain that the DEP does not consider the long-term or cumulative effects of natural gas drilling, including flaring, exhaust from machinery, chemical usage, etc. However, he said this just is not realistic right now.

A recently finished DEP study does not recommend any change to existing state law for air quality involving natural gas drilling, noting “no additional legislative rules establishing special requirements need to be promulgated at this time.”

“There are these notions that we should be doing more with air and with water and radioactivity and drilling mud going to landfills,” Huffman said, noting it is too early to tell how all of this will impact the West Virginia landscape. “It seems that some people want to jump to some regulation before they have any foundation to support it.”

The DEP recently established some regulations for natural gas pipelines in the state, and officials cited MarkWest Energy for releasing natural gas liquids in Wetzel County for “conditions not allowable in the waters of the state.”

Knowing that some of the industry leaders wished they did not have to get permits for pipelines, Huffman said it is better to get a permit now than to have a much larger regulatory problem in the future.

Also, Huffman said he has not had much direct interaction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding fracking, despite ongoing efforts of environmental groups to increase regulations.