Success usually comes at a cost, as West Virginia's natural gas producers are finding.

West Virginia added 6,860 producing gas wells between 2000 and 2005, which was the fifth largest growth nationwide over that period. According to state officials, the gas wells produced 217 MMcf/d in 2005.

The growth, however, has not been as welcomed in the state as in some other locations. A dispute between West Virginia's powerful coal mining industry and the emerging gas industry now has moved to the West Virginia Supreme Court, which has agreed to consider arguments in a case that may decide how close gas wells should be allowed to coal seams that could be mined.

The state's high court voted 4-0 earlier this month to consider a petition from a coalition of coal producers, landowners and industry groups that would block the West Virginia Oil & Gas Conservation Commission from granting waivers for drilling wells closer than 3,000 feet apart. Justice Brent Benjamin recused himself.

The lawsuit objects to four permits issued by the commission since late 2006. Those approved permits allowed closely grouped gas wells in areas totaling more than 550,000 acres across seven southern West Virginia counties. The petition also wants to block five additional permit requests to drill in 21 counties throughout the state.

According to the petition, the commission wrongly considered and approved permit waivers to allow gas drillers to space wells 1,000 feet apart. The commission normally requires 3,000-foot spacing between wells.

The lawsuit alleges that the West Virginia Shallow Gas Well Review Board, not the commission, has jurisdiction over well spacing in the state. The lawsuit questions whether the wells approved for drilling are shallow or deep, which it defines as above or below a Paleozoic-era geologic formation beneath West Virginia's surface.

If the wells are spaced closer than 3,000 feet, coal mining interests could be adversely affected, the petition claimed. The plaintiffs cited the federal mine safety rule, which requires a barrier of at least 150 feet between a gas well and coal operations.

"These mining regulations have two significant impacts," the petition noted. "First, it causes substantial amounts of coal to be left in the ground, or 'sterilized.' Secondly, it creates such narrow spaces between wells that coal operators will be unable to mine between the wells." In addition to overstepping the Shallow Gas Well Review Board, the petition alleged that the commission failed to notify affected coal miners when the waivers were considered.

The petition was filed against the commission as well as Chesapeake Appalachia, Eastern American Energy Corp. and PetroEdge Resources by Blue Eagle Land, Coalquest Development, Consolidation Coal Co., Horse Creek Land and Mining Co., the National Council of Coal Lessors, Penn Virginia Operating Co., Pocahontas Land Corp., WPP LLC, Wolf Run Mining Co. and the West Virginia Coal Association.

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