The City of Wellsburg, WV, has taken its first step toward repealing an ordinance it had enacted less than three months ago calling for a ban on natural gas drilling within the city and an adjacent one-mile buffer zone.
A first reading of the proposal to repeal the ban passed the city council by a 5-2 vote last Tuesday. They will meet again on Aug. 9 and take a second vote, which if successful will officially repeal the ban.
Since Wellsburg enacted its ban on May 10, the City of Morgantown implemented a similar one in June 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 then 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).
Mayor Sue Simonetti told NGI's Shale Daily that council members Ron Michaux, Paul Billiard, Bruce Hunter, Della Serevicz and Jeff Tarr voted in favor of repealing the ordinance. Randy Fletcher and Mike Mitchell were the two dissenting votes.
"I realize they are going to rescind it," Mitchell told NGI's Shale Daily on Monday. "I'm not an environmentalist, but I know that when you're dumping all of those chemicals into the ground you're not going to get them all out. I honestly believe that somewhere in our lifetime, or during our kids' or grandkids' lifetime, that there's going to be a real bad problem with the water. And once it's gone, it's gone. I also personally don't see a large influx of jobs coming into the area."
Simonetti said that although she doesn't vote unless to break a tie, she had wanted the ban amended, not repealed outright. "Personally, I was hoping that we could have amended the ordinance to exclude only our watershed area, but that didn't happen," Simonetti said Monday.
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).
Mitchell said he didn't believe the legal battle between Morgantown and NNE was a deciding factor in the vote to repeal the ban. "We voted on our ordinance before Morgantown did, and they definitely have a larger cash resource than we ever will hope to have to fight [a gas company in court]," Mitchell said. "The gas companies are holding all of the cards. It may be too late for the government to get control of this."
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.
Billiard, a newly elected council member who did not vote for the ban, told NGI's Shale Daily that there were protocol issues with the way the ban got onto the city's books. But he was satisfied with Tomblin's executive order. "Is it the perfect verbiage? Does it protect everything? No," Billiard said Tuesday. "But if you look at the big picture, we now have the governor and the [Department of Environmental Protection] pretty much stating how things are going to be run."
Billiard added that the city's attorney urged the city council to repeal the drilling ban, advising that the most the city could fine a gas company for violating the ban was a one-time charge of $500. "He also said that if they took us to court we would probably lose," Billiard said. "If Chesapeake [Energy] were to file a lawsuit similar to what Morgantown has pending against them, water would be the least of our concerns."
When asked if a gas company had filed a lawsuit against Wellsburg over the ban, Billiard said, "Not yet. The threat had been put out there. The drilling is going to happen. We need to be back to flat on our books first, then we can start looking at what the governor put into place. We will get with our city attorney and see what we can and cannot do, see what is going to work for us."
Mitchell said he was also concerned about Wellsburg being sued by a gas company. "We didn't want to break the citizens of Wellsburg over something that we couldn't win," Mitchell said Tuesday. "But I held my ground because I think that once you make commitments you stick with them no matter what."
Asked if the changes enacted by Tomblin had an effect on the city council, Mitchell said, "For me it didn't. Notifying [about drilling] and not doing [the drilling at all] are two different things. I still think there is definitely a danger to the groundwater."