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Wellsburg, WV Repeals Ban on Shale Gas Drilling

Almost three months to the day after first enacting a ban on natural gas drilling, the City of Wellsburg, WV, voted 5-3 on Tuesday night to repeal the measure.

A city official told NGI's Shale Daily that council members Jeff Tarr, Bruce Hunter, Della Serevicz, Tom Diserio and Paul Billiard voted in favor of the measure. Ron Michaux, Randy Fletcher and Mike Mitchell were the three dissenting votes.

"It's repealed and it's over. It's final," Serevicz told NGI's Shale Daily Wednesday. "I was always against it from the get go, but I was out voted the first couple of times. How can we tell the citizens of Wellsburg that they cannot lease their property? I didn't feel it was our right to do that."

The ordinance had banned drilling within the city and an adjacent one-mile buffer zone, which sits atop the prolific Marcellus Shale. Wellsburg took its first step toward repealing the ban at its last meeting on July 19, when the city council passed a first reading proposal to repeal the ban by a 5-2 vote (see Shale Daily, July 27).

"We always hear the negative things about the gas and oil companies, we never hear the positive," Serevicz said. "There's revenue and jobs coming in. Let's focus on some of the positive things."

Municipalities across the Marcellus Shale region have been grappling with enacting their own measures to ban hydraulic fracturing. On Monday the mayor of Pittsburgh said he would not sign a measure that would ask voters to decide in a referendum whether or not to enact a ban on the practice (see Shale Daily, Aug. 10).

Since Wellsburg enacted its ban on May 10, the City of Morgantown implemented a similar one and was immediately sued in circuit court by Northeast Natural Energy (NNE), which is drilling two Marcellus Shale natural gas wells in an industrial park outside the city limits but within its buffer zone (see Shale Daily, June 28). Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an executive order on July 12 calling for several new safeguards on drilling and a review of state regulations (see Shale Daily, July 14).

Tomblin's order 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 a state limit. Gas companies will also be required to notify the public of their intentions to drill within a municipality's borders before they drill their first horizontal well on any pad.

Serevicz said the governor's actions swayed the city council. "We came to the conclusion that we really had no say-so in this," she said. "It's all the [Department of Environmental Protection]. So we really had no choice but to repeal this matter."

Concerns over the safety of municipal water supplies were also at the heart of Morgantown's ban. NNE's wells are 2,000 feet from the Monongahela River and another 1,500 feet from the city's municipal water intake (see Shale Daily, June 21).

Serevicz said concerns over water supplies were an integral part of Wellsburg's former ban as well, and conceded that not everyone in town was happy with Tuesday night's decision.

"It's mixed reviews," Serevicz said of the vote. "Some residents are thrilled, especially the ones that have leased their properties. Some aren't. We've got people who are really worried about the water, me included. But when there's drilling going on all around in our neighboring cities and across the river, it's impossible just to protect Wellsburg. That's an impossible task to do. You can't protect one little tiny city."

Serevicz said she didn't know about the ongoing legal battle between Morgantown and NNE. Last month Billiard said the city's attorney urged the city council to repeal the drilling ban, saying the city would lose any legal challenges. It does not appear that any companies have sued Wellsburg over the ban.

Landowner rights and industry groups in West Virginia also applauded the move.

"We've been following the various initiatives in the different municipalities," Julie Archer, spokesperson for the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization, told NGI's Shale Daily. "We see what the different cities were doing as an indication that the state really needs to act and implement comprehensive regulatory reform. Reforms at the state level would have a broader impact."

Charlie Burd, spokesman for the Independent Oil & Gas Association of West Virginia, told NGI's Shale Daily that the industry "was very appreciative of their reconsideration."

"We've very pleased to hear that Wellsburg has done that," Burd said of the repeal. "Hydraulic fracturing is a technology that has proven successful in thousands and thousands of wells. The industry is firmly convinced that the engineering procedures used in that process lend themselves to the safe application of drilling and groundwater protection."

Asked if he thought Wellsburg had exceeded its authority with the original ban, Burd said, "To say that they overstepped their bounds is probably taking it one step too far. Citizens are concerned. They probably learned more about hydraulic fracturing since they initiated this ban, then they probably decided to go back and reconsider what they did."

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