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West Virginia Governor Orders Marcellus Rules

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an executive order Tuesday directing the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to begin enforcing several new safeguards on Marcellus Shale drilling, and to identify areas of regulatory concern.

Executive Order 4-11 focuses on public notice and water withdrawal and protection issues, but particularly targets natural gas well projects that plan to use at least 210,000 gallons of water in a month, and/or disturb acreage in excess of the state's Surface Disturbance Threshold (SDT). Some operators will now also be required to list the additives they plan to use during hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

"This executive order is the first step in my long-term plan to ensure responsible development of Marcellus Shale," Tomblin said. "The good paying jobs predicted with this development must include the protection of our public's health and safety as well as that of our environment."

Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia (IOGA), told NGI's Shale Daily that the organization "is very supportive of the governor and his efforts to really bring some consistency to this whole issue.

"We support fair and balanced regulation, and regulation that can be relied upon for a period of time. When investors go to look into where they are going to put their money, they want to know that there is going to be a program in place that can be relied upon for the duration of their well drilling program."

Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) President Kathryn Klaber also voiced support for the new rules.

"This next step in the regulatory and rulemaking process should give more confidence to all involved and interested in responsible shale gas development," Klaber told NGI's Shale Daily. "We look forward to working with DEP and legislative leaders in Charleston as additional regulations are considered to ensure the continued development of the Marcellus in West Virginia."

Tomblin's order essentially directs the DEP to use its powers to enact emergency rules, which take effect immediately and will remain so through September 2012. The West Virginia legislature must then enact legislation on the rules within that time frame to make the rules permanent.

Under those rules, natural gas companies seeking permits for well projects must also submit to the DEP:

The DEP will also require that well projects that will be over the SDT limit and/or will use more than 210,000 gallons of water a month must dispose of drill cuttings and drilling mud either through a solid waste facility approved by the DEP, or managed on site.

Companies must now also notify the public of their intentions to drill within a municipality's borders before they drill their first horizontal well on any particular pad.

Finally, the executive order continues a ban on the land application of any return fluids from well completion activities, and prohibits the disposal of return fluids at any municipal wastewater treatment plant without DEP approval in writing.

Asked if IOGA had issues with any particular rule, Burd said, "We're obviously still in the process of reviewing the whole thing, but on the surface we support what the governor has done. It's consistent with what the industry is in favor of. We have no major issues with these at all."

As a possible sign of things to come, the language in Executive Order 4-11 further stipulates that the DEP "shall take steps necessary to increase the regulatory oversight of practices and equipment" to prevent Marcellus Shale drilling from befouling the state's waterways. Also, the DEP "shall identify additional areas of critical regulatory concern, including but not limited to well construction and design standards, air emissions, drill cuttings management, recycling of produced fluids and water management."

In June some state officials raised doubts Tomblin would call a special session of the legislature for Marcellus regulatory reform, but lawmakers did create a bipartisan 10-member Marcellus Study Subcommittee to discuss and seek a consensus on the issues (see Shale Daily, June 17). Monongalia County, the City of Morgantown and West Virginia University's Faculty Senate are among those calling for a special session (see Shale Daily, June 15).

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