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Activists seek to halt Marcellus drilling permits

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia citizen and environmental groups on Tuesday urged Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to temporarily stop issuing new permits to drill for natural gas in the state's Marcellus Shale formation.

The state chapter of the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and eight other groups said no new permits should be issued until significant improvements are made in state law and regulations that govern drilling.

"We know that the legislation adopted in December 2011 was grossly inadequate, and does not provide the basic protections needed by West Virginia citizens," the groups said in a statement. "Yet permits for new wells continue to be issued, leaving landowners and local citizens helpless to stop the dangers in their neighborhood."

Among other things, the groups said lawmakers should make Department of Environmental Protection inspections of all drilling operations and gas wells mandatory. They also said DEP should determine the number of active wells inspectors "can effectively oversee" and "limit the number of permits issued to the corresponding number of inspectors on staff."

The groups want tougher regulation of how drilling companies dispose of water they use, local community control of where drilling occurs, and a mandate that drillers replace any drinking water supplies they damage.

"Natural gas development can be done right, but today, it is being done wrong, and that needs to stop," the citizen groups said.

Officials from the governor's office did not respond to a request for comment. Tom Aluise, a DEP spokesman, said his agency "has no intention of pursuing a moratorium on drilling."

"Furthermore, that's an issue for the Legislature, not regulators," Aluise said.

Corky Demarco, a spokesman for the West Virginia Oil and Gas Association, said the implications of a permit moratorium "would be far reaching."

"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," Demarco said in a prepared statement.

The moratorium demand came as a new review by legislative auditors reported that the number of abandoned oil and gas wells in the state is increasing because the DEP Office of Oil and Gas is not forcing operators to plug inactive wells in a timely manner.

"The OOG is not requiring operators to plug abandoned wells or prove that there is a bona fide use for such wells, as stated in Code," the new audit report said. "Data provided by OOG indicates that the number of abandoned wells is increasing, and some wells remain abandoned for 10 years or more."

In a response letter, DEP officials said their regulatory program regarding oil and gas wells "has been short staffed for years due to lack of funding." The new legislation passed in December includes permit fees aimed at helping DEP hire more staff, the agency noted.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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