The West Virginia legislature has overwhelmingly approved a landmark Marcellus Shale regulatory reform bill, but advocates for the shale gas industry, surface owners’ rights and the environment told NGI the bill isn’t all they had hoped for.

HB 401 — also known as the Natural Gas Horizontal Wells Control Act — passed the House of Delegates by a 92-5 vote last Wednesday. The Senate quickly followed suit, passing the measure 33-0 with no debate.

“We may not agree on all points, but this bill accomplishes many great things,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said shortly after the vote. “This legislation provides reasonable regulations to protect the environment and has also opened the door to new job opportunities for our citizens.” The governor had called the legislature into special session on Dec. 11 to consider the bill.

But despite the seemingly easy passage in the legislature, most of the stakeholders involved conceded that the bill didn’t please everyone and more work lay ahead.

West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association Executive Director Corky DeMarco said one major rankle within the shale gas industry is the $10,000 permitting fee operators will now have to pay for the first well drilled on a pad and $5,000 for each additional well. Tomblin said the fees would generate $2.4 million annually for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to use for hiring additional field inspectors and permit reviewers.

“We could have tried to kill the bill, but we’ve been trying to pass a bill for three years,” DeMarco said. “Having a 60-day session makes it even more cumbersome. But we’ve got a chance to move forward. We now have something that provides for certainty and clarity.”

L. Gil White — a government affairs consultant for the Charleston-based firm Steptoe & Johnson and an aide to former Gov. Joe Manchin — said the nearly unanimous vote in the legislature showed that the industry was at least resigned to the changes.

“If the industry was adamantly opposed to this bill, it would have had different numbers based upon passage,” White said. “The industry realized something had to happen, there had to be a first step taken. I think most realized that this is that first step. Even the legislators that didn’t think this bill went far enough realized that something needed to be done, and it needed to be done now.”

Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, concurred.

“I think industry has been fairly patient with the process,” Burd said. “While they’re not thrilled with the permit fee increases and providing public notice on every well, I don’t think there’s going to be an effort to go back in now and try to change those things. I think the industry will want to work within those new parameters and will attempt to simply move forward and deal with the hand that has been dealt.”

Julie Archer, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, agreed that HB 401 was an improvement over current regulations, but not for affected landowners.

“The surface owners really got left out again,” Archer said. “We are really disappointed that the governor and the legislature didn’t do more to help surface owners have their rights recognized and respected by the drillers. There’s been a lot of talk about providing certainty and consistency for the industry, but the landowners aren’t getting much certainty out of this.”

Jim Sconyers, chairman of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, decried the process used to get HB 401 passed.

“It was very undemocratic and disappointing,” Sconyers said. “The governor appointed a select committee to come up with a bill that both houses would support. And then he put their pretty nice bill aside, ignored it and made his own creation. The governor calls it a compromise, but the bill he rejected from his own committee was already a compromise.”

But Sconyers conceded that the bill was better than nothing.

“In general, I think the environmental community feels this is progress,” Sconyers said. “There are some protections in place that weren’t there before. And you now actually have to pay real money to get a permit to drill a Marcellus Shale gas well in West Virginia. Most people are saying it’s a start; let’s hope we can make it better as time goes by. I think there will be efforts to plug some of the loopholes and fill in some of the omissions right away next month when our regular legislative session convenes.”

Other provisions of HB 401 include:

The West Virginia legislature will convene Jan. 11 for its next 60-day session.

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