Shale Daily / NGI All News Access

New Morgantown Mayor Worried About Fracking Ban

The new mayor of Morgantown, WV, said he is concerned about the potential legal ramifications from the city's new ordinance banning hydraulic fracturing (fracking), but he indicated that the city will keep the ban in place for now.

Meanwhile, attorneys for Northeast Natural Energy (NNE) filed additional paperwork in the case on Thursday, asking a Monongalia County Circuit Court judge to issue a preliminary injunction preventing the city from enforcing the ordinance, which bans fracking within the city and an adjacent one-mile buffer zone.

Jim Manilla was sworn in as mayor during the last Morgantown City Council meeting on July 5. He had served previously as a city council member but was not in office when the city enacted the ordinance on June 21 (see Shale Daily, June 23a).

"My personal opinion is the one-mile thing will not be held up in court. I do have a major concern about that," Manilla told the Charleston Daily Mail.

The ordinance targets two NNE Marcellus Shale natural gas wells being drilled in Morgantown Industrial Park, which lies within the buffer zone. The city said it is concerned about the possibility of an accident at the wells, which are also near the Monongahela River and the city's municipal water intake (see Shale Daily, June 2).

Charleston, WV-based NNE had originally sought a temporary restraining order preventing the city from enforcing the ordinance, and a declaration that the ordinance preempts state law (see Shale Daily, June 28). Michael Garrison, an attorney with the Morgantown office of Spilman, Thomas & Battle PLLC, told NGI's Shale Daily that the injunction request was a different procedural approach but legal arguments remained the same.

Garrison also said NNE and Enrout Properties LLC, which owns the surface and mineral rights at the industrial park, want a court hearing.

"We haven't heard anything yet from the judge as to when the court will schedule a hearing," Garrison said Tuesday. "We've asked for things to be expedited, for the discovery [phase] to be done on an expedited basis and for a hearing to be held soon thereafter. We intend to depose various city officials and any expert witnesses that the city plans to rely upon.

"We'd like to do that on an expedited basis because our client plans to begin its fracking process in August."

In its court filings NNE said it has spent more than $7 million developing the two wells and put the project's current net value at about $42 million. The company said it could lose tens of millions of dollars if its legal challenge to the ordinance is unsuccessful. If that were to happen, NNE could potentially seek millions from the city as compensation.

"We're almost gambling," Manilla said. "I don't want that to come back on the taxpayers."

Morgantown City Manager Terrence Moore told NGI's Shale Daily that he and the city council have met in closed session to discuss the ordinance and the city's options.

"Obviously, our interest is to not be at a place in which we are compensating for losses or anything like that," Moore said Tuesday. "So decisions will have to continue to be made. We're simply working to strike a balance to offer protection, whereas at the same time to not compromise ourselves adversely."

Moore also confirmed that the city's legal counsel had been in discussion with attorneys representing NNE.

Morgantown is governed by a city manager-council form of government, with one city council member serving the ceremonial role as mayor. Manilla was elected mayor on April 26, along with three new city council members.

The dispute between Morgantown and NNE has been brewing for more than a month (see Shale Daily, June 21; June 10). During that time frame, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin urged city officials to confine its governance to within the city limits, and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Randy Huffman said it was unlikely that the DEP would issue a stop work order against NNE (see Shale Daily, June 23b; June 6).

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