A proposal by some members of the West Virginia House of Delegates to place a moratorium on natural gas drilling permits until the state passes new regulations on drilling isn't causing sleepless nights for West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association Executive Director Corky DeMarco.

A letter proposing that the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) institute a drilling ban, which has reportedly been signed in recent days by as many as 20 delegates, has yet to materialize, DeMarco told NGI's Shale Daily Friday. The West Virginia legislature's regular session ended March 12.

"Actually, they tried to get some signatures on it before the session ended last week, and to my knowledge at that point they only had two or three signatures...today they're touting 20 signatures. There's 134 legislators. If they were real serious about doing this and inflicting this blow on the industry they would have done it while they were in town," DeMarco said.

The House of Delegates during its regular session failed to bring to a vote a bill (SB 424), which would have changed West Virginia's regulation of Marcellus Shale drilling (see Shale Daily, March 15). SB 424 would have required drillers to give surface owners advance notice of any seismic activity on or near their property; prohibited oil and gas wells from being drilled within 1,000 feet of water wells and homes; and required drillers to submit detailed water management plans and lists of chemicals to be used in hydraulic fracturing. Amendments to the original bill removed a proposal to significantly increase horizontal drilling permit fees to fund more DEP inspectors and language that would have allowed forced pooling.

At a press conference Wednesday Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said DEP already has "significant authority through its permitting and regulatory process [see Shale Daily, March 17]. "It is true that there are some things that need to be resolved by statute, but in the absence of any agreement on these issues, I have a duty to work with our Department of Environmental Protection to provide reasonable regulations governing the industry," Tomblin said.

Tomblin said a special session of the legislature to address Marcellus regulations is not likely because the "divide that exists" between House and Senate versions of SB 424 was so great.

"There was some differences in the bills that were so far apart that I don't know that they would ever be able to work a deal and then come to the table with an agreed-to piece of legislation," DeMarco said.

But Del. Barbara Evans Fleischauer (D-Mongongalia) and some other delegates believe the state should stop issuing drilling permits until the House and Senate see eye to eye on Marcellus policy and new regulations are put in place. Fleischauer wants a moratorium on new permits to be issued by the legislature during a special session she hopes Tomblin will call later this year.

"We desperately need new inspectors," Fleischauer said Friday on the MetroNews Talkline radio program, which is broadcast throughout the state. "We desperately need new regulations so that the environment is protected and people's property rights are protected, and so that we can move ahead with this industry that could be so very helpful to our state."

In an effort to fund a larger staff and more oil and gas inspectors, DEP had proposed increasing horizontal drilling permit fees to $10,000 from the current $650 paid by all drillers (see Shale Daily, Feb. 11).

"I think that the industry would have accepted those fees if there was no other way to get the DEP the money that they need to operate," DeMarco said. "I understand how they got to that number. I don't necessarily like the number, but if that's what it was going to have to take to keep the agency afloat, I think we would do it."

Tomblin, who had extended through Friday the West Virginia legislature's budget session, on Wednesday asked budget negotiators to come up with an additional $2 million to pay for additional DEP oil and gas inspectors. Both chambers were expected to vote late Friday on an $11.4 billion budget that did not include the DEP funding Tomblin had requested.