CHARLESTON - Though a federal environmental regulator is "very confident" in West Virginia's ability to oversee the oil and natural gas industry, a state delegate may seek some help.
"If (the oil and natural gas) industry uses its vast arsenal of lobbyists and other means to delay or defeat a meaningful bill, you won't have to come back here to hear about it because I'll be coming to Washington (D.C.) to ask for your intervention to protect our citizens and our beloved West Virginia hills," said Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, during a special United States Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in Charleston Monday.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a member of the committee, chaired the session, as members of Congress - David McKinley, R-W.Va.; Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. - also questioned witnesses while sitting with Joe Manchin.
Tim Manchin said the West Virginia House and Senate are finishing legislation to regulate drilling in the Marcellus Shale field, but said no vote is likely to occur until Wednesday. One of the bill's highlights includes increasing drilling permit fees from the current $650 per well to $10,000 for the first well and $5,000 for each one added to the site.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently revealed its plans to study how fracking impacts drinking water, a study that may include data gathered from heavily drilled Wetzel County.
Whether state legislators adopt new regulations, John Capacasa, director of the EPA's Water Protection Division, said the state's Department of Environmental Protection is doing an adequate job - especially when compared to some neighboring states.
"We are very confident in their abilities," Capacasa said when McKinley and Manchin asked him to compare West Virginia's DEP to that of Pennsylvania, adding state regulators are "ahead of the curve."
Capacasa also said there is no chance the EPA would supercede West Virginia's authority to issue permits for drilling activity.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman told the federal legislators one of the biggest problems his organization has is a lack of human resources. Because the number of conventional drilling permits issued has dropped from 2,391 in 2007 to just 508 in 2010, the organization's funding has declined.
At the same time, the number of horizontal drilling permits issued has jumped from zero in 2006 to 430 in 2010. Since the permit fee for both horizontal and conventional drilling is now the same, Huffman's agency is suffering a loss of funding at the same time the workload on the 13-19 inspectors he has to send out into the field at any one time.
This is because horizontal drilling involves much more work than conventional drilling.
The reason Tim Manchin and Huffman want to raise the drilling fees is so they can fund the hiring of additional inspectors to enforce the new rules.
"Marcellus Shale drilling is gas drilling on steroids," said Donald Garvin Jr., legislative coordinator for the West Virginia Environmental Council, who is also the former manager of a small oil and gas company. "It can be described as the industrialization of rural West Virginia."
Following the hearing, Joe Manchin said he would take the testimony back to the full Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for members' consideration.