Ideas differ on Marcellus shale in W.Va. gov race

Charleston, WV (AP) – Candidates for West
Virginia’s special gubernatorial election say West Virginia should
capitalize on the vast wealth the Marcellus shale natural gas field
has to offer, but how they would manage this modern-day gas rush
varies.

The mile-deep Marcellus shale is believed to hold trillions of
cubic feet of gas. An industry study conducted by West Virginia
University reports that during 2009 the Marcellus field generated
$2.3 billion in business volume to the overall economy and $14.5
million in sales, income and business franchise taxes. The benefit
is expected to multiply many times over as the field is more fully
developed.

But tapping the wealth has raised concerns on several fronts,
from well spacing, advanced notice to property owners, road damage
and permit fees, to the potential effects drilling would have on
area water supplies.

Since legislation regulating Marcellus development failed to
clear the Legislature earlier this year, candidates running for the
May 14 primary have seized on the opportunity to comment and
present their own plans on how to best control and profit from
drilling the field that stretches from West Virginia to New
York.

Legislation cleared the Senate, but didn’t make it through the
House of Delegates. The Legislature’s failure to enact legislation
was noted by several gubernatorial candidates.

Given the complexities of the issue, House Speaker Rick
Thompson, D-Wayne, said the matter should be dealt with in a
special session so it could be the sole issue attracting lawmakers’
attention. Thompson is one of six Democrats seeking his party’s
nomination next month.

Before holding any session, Thompson said he would bring
regulators, drillers, landowners and others together to hash out a
comprehensive legislative package. It would, he said, require some
“give-and-take and compromise” to create such legislation.

Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson would seek a moratorium
“until all the studies are in and it’s been proven that there will
not be the health impact that we’re seeing with mountaintop removal
and our water quality.”

Johnson said the state has an opportunity to be pre-emptive with
Marcellus shale and to make sure that the drilling benefits the
state and its residents. The state shouldn’t be overly concerned
that regulations would drive drillers away. “The bottom line is
they will always come back” because the gas just gets more valuable
the longer it’s underground.

Eastern Panhandle Republican Larry Faircloth is concerned about
landowners’ rights. Faircloth told the Huntington Herald-Dispatch
he would submit legislation to protect property rights and the
quality of water systems.

Speaking to the same paper, Republican “Bill” Clark wants to see
the state set a severance tax that is competitive with other states
also drilling the Marcellus.

Faircloth and Clark are two of eight Republicans seeking their
party’s nomination. Of the eight, Cliff Ellis, Mitch Carmichael and
Clark Barnes did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking
comment. Democrat Arne Moltis did not mention the Marcellus shale
in his interview with the AP.

Former Republican secretary of state Betty Ireland and acting
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, share Johnson’s concern
over damaging the state’s water systems.

Drilling to unleash the gas trapped more than a mile below the
surface requires a method called hydraulic fracturing, or
“fracking.” Fluids are pumped underground at high pressure to crack
the shale so the gas can escape. The method uses millions of
gallons of water and fluids that some argue can contaminate local
water supplies.

Ireland said any proposed solution should use research and
development and create a predictable regulatory process.

Taking it a step further, Kessler wants to create a West
Virginia Future Fund that would take 25 percent from the severance
tax collected from natural gas extracted in Marcellus shale and
deposit it in an endowment fund that couldn’t be touched for 20
years. He said Alaska created a similar program using oil revenues
and the state now has billions in the fund and no state income
tax.

State Treasurer John Perdue said he would like to earmark
revenues from Marcellus production for the state’s roads. Perdue
criticized the legislative leadership for not passing Marcellus
regulations during the recent 60-day session.

Republican Mark Sorsaia called the Legislature’s inability to
deal with Marcellus shale “another failure” and alleged that
unregulated drilling is occurring in the state as a result.

Fellow Democrat and current Secretary of State Natalie Tennant
also wants to use an unspecified portion of the severance tax
revenue for improving three areas: math and science education,
community and small business development, and research and
development of new technologies. Tennant echoed Perdue in
criticizing the legislative leadership’s lack of Marcellus
regulation in its regular session.

Republican businessman Bill Maloney, a driller, said the state
needs to focus on educating the next generation of workers who will
work in the Marcellus fields.

“Marcellus is going to be huge,” he said. “It’s a pretty high
tech job running these $15 million Marcellus rigs and we need to
train our work force to be with the industries of the future.”

Mountain Party candidate Bob Henry Baber also wants the state’s
work force trained to work the Marcellus. Baber wants to see the
state’s vocational schools training their students to fill the
needs of the state, such as being trained to work Marcellus
drilling rigs.

Developing the Marcellus fields is more than just drilling.
Kessler and acting-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said West Virginia should
take advantage of the spin-off industries that could be
created.

Tomblin and Kessler said developing the Marcellus could aid the
state’s ailing chemical industry. Ethane, removed from methane, or
natural gas, could be converted to ethylene _ a building block for
the plastics and chemical industries.

Several candidates said building a plant in West Virginia to
convert ethane into ethylene would be key to that development.

The May 14 primary and the Oct. 4 general elections are being
held to fill the unexpired term of former Democrat Gov. Joe
Manchin. Manchin was elected to the U.S. Senate last year to fill
unexpired term of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

 

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