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Tomblin 'Hopeful' for Marcellus Special Session in December

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appears poised to call a special session of the legislature in mid-December to discuss, and hopefully pass, a compromise Marcellus Shale regulatory reform bill.

Meanwhile hundreds of citizens have signed an online petition urging Tomblin to call the special session for the proposed bill, which was formulated after months of discussion by the Joint Select Committee on Marcellus Shale (JSCMS) and has been dubbed the Marcellus Draft Bill (MDB).

Kimberly Osborne, Tomblin's press secretary, told NGI's Shale Daily that the governor hoped to call a special session during the interim committee meetings scheduled for Dec. 12-14.

"That's what he is hopeful to do," Osborne said Wednesday. "There is proposed legislation, but there are some concerns with it and the governor is working with legislators and stakeholders to come to an agreement. Our staff is working with them as well."

Asked what concerns the governor had over the MDB, Osborne said to her knowledge a main sticking point involved well casing regulations.

"The governor hasn't necessarily recommended tweaks [to the MDB], but wells are an area of concern," Osborne said. "Some of the legislation is very specific. With all the technology out there and as quickly as it changes, there is concern as to whether or not those details would be better left with the Department of Environmental Protection [DEP]. That way any changes that need to be made to wells can be made quickly, rather than set in law. We don't want the law to become outdated."

The JSCMS used a failed bill called the Natural Gas Horizontal Well Control Act, also known as SB 424, as the foundation for the MDB (see Shale Daily, Aug. 11).

Del. Tim Manchin (D-Marion), one of the co-chairs of the JSCMS, told NGI's Shale Daily that the 10 members of the bipartisan committee negotiated changes to SB 424 to try and build consensus for what would eventually become the MDB. He said he was concerned that any proposed changes by Tomblin could make the bill's passage more difficult.

"Sometimes folks on the committee would agree with one change if there was another change made somewhere else," Manchin said. "But [if Tomblin] changes those things then he may lose the benefit of what [committee members] saw in the bill and that can destroy support for it."

But Manchin said he didn't believe there was any one particular amendment or portion of the MDB that, if changed, would ultimately jeopardize the bill's passage.

"There is a delicate balance," Manchin said. "There are a lot of different people who have different emphasis in their minds on what the bill needs to contain. If you take away what they felt was critical for the bill, then there's a chance they won't support it and that they could cause others not to support it, either."

Manchin said he believes Tomblin will call a special session sometime between Dec. 12 and 14, and that the MDB would pass the West Virginia legislature in its current form.

"I'm not saying it would pass unanimously in both houses, but Sen. [Douglas] Facemire [D-Braxton] believes that in its current form he can get it passed in the Senate, and I believe we can pass it in its current form in the House [of Delegates]," Manchin said.

The public has also started calling for a special session. Candace Jordan, a member of the environmental group West Virginians for a Moratorium on Marcellus, started on online petition with the website change.org. As of Wednesday afternoon, 264 people had signed the petition, which calls on the legislature to pass the MDB.

"Gov. Tomblin must not weaken the legislation proposed by the [JSCMS], but must instead pursue strong regulation that will protect West Virginians now and in the future," Jordan said on the website.

The shale gas industry is believed to be against several aspects of the MDB, but is particularly incensed by an amendment calling for operators to pay a $10,000 permitting fee for the first well drilled on a pad, and $5,000 for each additional well (see Shale Daily, Nov. 22; Oct. 17; Sept. 16). The DEP has also proposed increasing horizontal drilling fees to $10,000 -- up from the current $650 paid by all drillers -- to fund additional inspectors (see Shale Daily, Feb. 11).

SB 424 passed the Senate by a unanimous vote on March 2, and a different version of the bill was approved by the House of Delegates on March 10. But legislators could not pass a reconciled version of the bill before the legislature convened for the 2011 season (see Shale Daily, March 15; March 11; March 4). The West Virginia legislature convenes for its next 60-day session on Jan. 11.

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