Regulating New ‘Boom’ Properly

West Virginia simply wasn’t ready for the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom. Laws regulating the industry are antiquated. The state agency charged with inspecting wells is woefully understaffed. That needs to change.

We are not suggesting state legislators enact a gusher of new statutes to regulate gas drilling and production. Often, such “onmibus” bills, on any topic, bog down at the state Capitol.

But a targeted response to the boom, focusing on known needs, should be a priority for the legislative session in January.

Two concerns that certainly ought to be on the agenda involve inspections and the rights of Mountain State property owners.

Only 17 inspectors are available to the state Department of Natural Resources, which is supposed to monitor drilling activity to ensure it is safe and not harmful to the environment. “I know what is going on. Having it under control is another issue,” DEP head Randy Huffman told our reporter.

That certainly is not a very reassuring assessment. The situation needs to change

Property owners’ rights are another area of concern, in view of changes in drilling technology during recent years.

At one time the issue was relatively simple: Gas and oil companies drilled vertical wells and pumped fossil fuels to the surface. Now, however, horizontal drilling is in wide use. That means a well can be drilled on one plot of land, and extended horizontally for hundreds, even thousands of feet under another tract – mineral rights to which may not be owned by the gas company.

Both the drilling industry and the state Surface Owners Rights Organization favor a change called “forced pooling.” It would require mineral rights owners to give up their gas, perhaps because horizontal wells have been drilled into their property. However, it would require drilling companies to compensate owners adequately for the gas.

Legislators should consider it – providing there are safeguards to ensure fair compensation is paid.

The Marcellus Shale boom is occurring right now. State legislators have a duty to ensure it is managed properly. In January, they should begin addressing new rules to that end.