Energy industry pushes back on W.Va. drilling ban

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Mayor Lucille Blum and the other elected leaders of New Martinsville thought they were doing a good thing when they banned Marcellus shale gas drilling in their small town on the Ohio River. The unanimous vote had only one purpose, Blum says — protecting water wells from a potential threat.

Businessman Matt Quinet thought they were crazy declaring the modern-day gold rush a “public nuisance.” So did a lot of other people. And they made their feelings known: On Friday, exactly one month after City Council passed the ban, it began rescinding the ordinance. The final vote is set for Sept. 5.

“I didn’t expect the pushback,” Blum says, “and I don’t think the council did, either.”

Gas industry workers packed a council meeting to object, the president of the West Virginia Independent Oil & Gas Association threatened to take its business elsewhere, and Chesapeake Appalachia followed up with a letter urging council to reconsider.

“The statements were strong enough that they made us question the decisions that had been made and made us look at that industry a different way,” Blum says.

A similar dilemma faces the Northern Panhandle community of Wellsburg, where City Council will decide Tuesday whether to rescind a ban it passed in May.

Last month, Chesapeake withdrew a promised $30,000 gift for band instruments at Wellsburg Middle School.

“As a publicly traded company with many stakeholders, we must direct our expenses and philanthropy to communities that will work with us, not against us,” says spokeswoman Stacey Brodak, adding that Chesapeake will continue to work with others in the industry to oppose municipal bans.

“We do not have to choose between the environment or the economics,” she says. “We are benefiting both.”

In all, four West Virginia communities decided they had to go it alone when wrangling state legislators failed to agree on new rules to regulate Marcellus drilling earlier this year. Only two — Lewisburg and Morgantown — are still standing by their bans.

Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies allow gas companies to sink wells deeper than ever, and the industry is in overdrive as it taps the vast, mile-deep reserves underlying much of the state.

The influx of workers over the past three years has tripled business at Quinet’s Court Restaurant in New Martinsville and prompted its owner to buy a 10-room motel in nearby Paden City. Quinet says it’s booked every night with “clean, polite, respectful” workers who patronize local bars and restaurants, turn in early and pay their bills without quibbling.

“These gas people have brought new life to this town,” he says. “Before, it was almost like a ghost town.”

Bayer and PPG Industries had laid off many workers, and the Ormet aluminum mill across the river in Hannibal, Ohio was shut down.

“Business was scary,” Quinet says. The gas boom began “just when we needed it most.”

“So when I saw the town had this ban, it made me think, ‘What are we thinking? What are we doing?'” he says. “… For any town that comes into this, it’s like the town hit the jackpot.”

Besides creating jobs and tax revenue, gas companies donate to libraries, schools, 4-H clubs and any other fundraiser they’re asked to support, he says.

“These people don’t say no.”

Unless a town says no to them.

Brodak says the industry works hard to win communities over, explaining its technical processes and safeguards, and addressing residents’ concerns. When a community does enact a drilling ban, she says, it’s “often based on misinformation and fear, not facts or science.”

The industry will keep fighting back, she says, arguing that state law gives the Department of Environmental Protection sole responsibility for regulating oil and gas drilling.

City Manager Mark Henne says Wellsburg isn’t reconsidering its ban because Chesapeake withdrew its gift to the school.

“That was a shame,” he says, “but that in no way played into consideration.

“We think it was a horrible thing, but our feeling is, that’s their business,” he says. “We have to do what we have to do as elected officials to protect the health and safety and welfare of our community in the absence of the state being there.”

That, he says, is what has changed: Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin recently ordered the DEP to craft emergency rules for Marcellus operations, and a panel of lawmakers is working diligently on new legislation.

“Had there been action by the Legislature before, we wouldn’t have done this,” Henne says. “Clearly, they’re the responsible party for regulating this industry. We only acted to protect our citizens.”

Morgantown cited similar concerns in passing its ban. So far, though, Tomblin’s action hasn’t changed its position. On the banks of the Monongahela River, less than a mile from an intake for the city’s drinking water supply, Northeast Natural Energy is sinking wells.

The Charleston-based company is now suing to stop the city from enforcing its ban, and a judge has set three days starting Aug. 17 to hear arguments on the injunction request.

Lewisburg, meanwhile, sits atop sensitive Karst limestone, known for sinkholes, caves and streams that sink underground. The geologic formations are fragile environments for rare and threatened creatures, from salamanders to the endangered Indiana bat.

City officials there say it’s a place so special that it has to remain off limits.

Lewisburg’s ban is not being challenged.