A coalition of environmental groups is calling on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to enact a moratorium on natural gas drilling in West Virginia until the industry and regulators with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) meet several conditions.

According to media reports, the Sierra Club led other environmental groups at a press conference in Charleston on Tuesday, while the state legislature met for an interim session. The groups’ two main demands are that the DEP hire additional inspectors and that the inspection of every natural gas well become mandatory.

“We’re holding this conference today to start this campaign,” said Jim Kotcon, energy committee chairman for the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. “We certainly don’t expect the legislature or the governor to do that immediately. But these are very serious problems that West Virginians are facing, and we think that eventually something like this will happen.”

The environmental groups want natural gas producers to adopt closed-loop systems for fracking, add chemical tracers to fracking fluids and take hazardous wastes to hazardous materials disposal facilities. They also want the state government to honor “home rule” — which could allow localities to ban oil and gas development — and to guarantee that citizens will be given a permanent replacement supply of water in the event of contamination by natural gas drilling.

“We are becoming increasingly concerned by what we’re hearing from residents who live near the drilling operations that are already happening in West Virginia,” Robin Blakeman, organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), told NGI’s Shale Daily on Thursday. “There are health, air and water quality issues that are arising from these sites. We would like the immediate, urgent problems addressed before any further permits are issued for sure.”

Charlie Burd, executive director of the West Virginia Independent Oil and Gas Association, told NGI’s Shale Daily that a moratorium would be “absolutely ridiculous and unacceptable.”

“The industry has done everything that it has been asked to do,” Burd said Thursday. “We worked very closely with the governor and the legislative leadership, and they crafted and passed the Natural Gas Horizontal Wells Control Act and a plethora of other statutory changes. These are just unfounded reasons to seek a moratorium.

“It’s interesting that the moratorium [idea] was brought by the Sierra Club. They obviously initiated this attack on the oil and gas industry after what appears to be a relatively successful attack to eliminate coal production in this country.”

West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association Executive Director Corky DeMarco concurred. “The implications of a moratorium would be far reaching,” DeMarco said, adding that the legislature “spent many hours and received comments from industry regulators and environmental organizations about the horizontal well regulations, which are not yet a year old.

“The [DEP] has developed a comprehensive and robust complement of environmental regulations, placing West Virginia as a leader in setting regulations for shale gas development. This industry is well regulated, providing good-paying jobs, a cleaner environment, affordable energy for our residents and an all-American energy that lessens our dependence on foreign sources of energy and provides long-term opportunity for manufacturing and economic growth.”

Besides the Sierra Club and OVEC, the other environmental groups in support of a moratorium are Christians for the Mountains, Eight Rivers Council, Friends of the Cacapon River, Greenbrier River Water Association, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia Environmental Council, WV for Moratorium on Marcellus and the website SaveTheWaterTable.org.

Tomblin signed the landmark Marcellus Shale regulatory reform bill last December (see Shale Daily, Dec. 27, 2011). The bill’s permitting fees on natural gas operators were expected to produce $2.4 million annually for the DEP, which the agency said it would use to hire additional inspectors and permit reviewers.