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by Beth Little | 2011

No regulation of the gas drilling industry, no money for DEP Inspectors, but, what the heck! Give them a tax break anyway!

After the Legislative session ended, Sen. Mike Green, Chair of the Energy, Mining and Industry Committee, shamed the House for not passing Marcellus shale legislation.  But House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley said the Senate  was not willing to compromise, and Speaker Rick Thompson effectively killed the bill in the House by not bringing it up for a vote. Governor Ray Tomblin maintains we don’t need more regulation anyway.

What it comes down to is a grand failure of leadership in responding to citizens’ concerns about the impacts from Marcellus shale gas drilling. Marcellus impacts are many times greater than the traditional gas drilling impacts for which existing regulations were passed many years ago; Marcellus shale was the biggest issue during the session.

Acting Senate President Jeff Kessler did not overtly join in passing the buck, but he also didn’t do anything obvious to get a bill passed. And in a WVEC press conference earlier in the session, he sounded the mantra that I got very tired of hearing: “We have to do it right.” That’s what I kept hearing from the legislators that tend to be more concerned about industry profits than citizens’ rights and the environment.

The DEP has worked on new guidelines for Marcellus drilling for nearly two years. For the better part of the last year they convened stakeholder meetings with industry, surface owners, and environmentalists, and conducted a comprehensive program review.

Finally, under a charge from former Governor Manchin in September, Secretary Huffman formed a committee to provide input for legislation to be introduced in the 2011 session. The environmental community was dismayed when the make-up of the committee was heavily skewed with seven of nine members from industry. One would think that if the DEP was more concerned about input from industry, the resulting legislative proposal would be more favorable to industry. And, predictably, the results were missing a number of the legislative priorities developed by the vigorous collaboration of environmental groups.

However, when the resulting DEP bill was introduced in the Senate, it was promptly stripped by 85 percent, and “We have to do it right” became a euphemism for “We can’t do anything that industry doesn’t like.”

There was also a bill introduced in the House that an Interim Committee worked on for months before the session, and a Judiciary Subcommittee worked on late into the night more than once. But it was stalled from getting to the House floor by pro-industry legislators.

Something did pass: SB465, giving tax incentives to the natural gas industry, but only after additional funding for the DEP to hire more inspectors was removed. Delegate Bonnie Brown asked the pertinent question: “So we’re just giving them a tax break before we even regulate the industry?”

There were other positive actions from some legislators. See “Heroes and Heroines” on page 1 this issue of the Mountain State Sierran for more examples.

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