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Landowner, environmental groups push for bills to put more gas well inspectors into the field

MORGANTOWN — A group of landowner and environmental interests spoke Monday morning about the pressing need to put more oil and gas well inspectors in the field, and about two stalled bills that could accomplish that.

Right now, said David McMahon, co-founder of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, there is “too little enforcement from too few inspectors.”

He highlighted a 2018 study undertaken by Princeton and McGill universities in 13 West Virginia counties. The study said that a sampling of 79 conventional vertical wells in those counties showed they were leaking an average of 9 cubic feet of methane gas per hour — 7.5 times the EPA estimate.

That poses several problems, he said. It’s wasteful and robs the well owners of revenue and robs the state of severance taxes. Fugitive methane pollutes the air and contributes to global warming.

Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas is already underfunded and understaffed, he said. In 2020, OOG received $4.7 million to cover 17 inspectors, one for every 4,000 wells. In 2021, reduction in drilling permit fees forced OOG to cut down to nine inspectors, one for every 7,000 wells.

There are about 60,000 to 70,000 active wells in the state, said McMahon and other press conference participants.

But abandoned wells offer an additional problem. While active wells leak more methane, the universities’ study said, observations suggest that the number of abandoned wells is significantly underestimated: between 60,000 and 760,000 wells, with a best estimate of 440,000.

One of the bills in the pipeline to put more inspectors in the field is SB 480, which has been placed on the Senate Energy agenda twice and pulled twice. No one at the press conference would comment on the record about who is behind the bill getting pulled.

SB 480 would collect a $100 annual fee from every active well producing more than 10,000 cubic feet of gas per day. McMahon said that would restore the number of inspectors back to the 2020 level. The bill says any unused funds would go into the Oil and Gas Reclamation Fund to plug abandoned and orphaned wells.

Another bill, stuck in House Energy, is HB 2725, by Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia. Hansen said his bill charges a $100 fee for every active well, regardless of volume, as long as it’s not used exclusively to provide free gas to landowners. That would raise $6 million per year, he said.

McMahon said that money could allow OOG to increase its inspector staff to have one for every 2,000 wells. As with SB 480, unused money would go to OOG’s Reclamation Fund for well plugging.

McMahon said he would like to see SB 480 amended to match HB 2725, should SB 480 move forward. Any well that can’t afford $100 per year is close to exhausted and should be plugged soon, anyway.

Angie Rosser, with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the OOG inspectors have an additional burden: inspecting 28,000 above-ground storage tanks, many of them near drinking water intakes or sitting on private land above drinking water wells.

Despite the lessons learned from the 2014 Freedom Industries spill that contaminated the water for 300,000 people, she said, a bill was introduced this session, HB 2598, to exempt ASTs used for oil and gas production that sit inside zones of critical concern — even though DEP has said these tanks have seen the most violations.

A zone of critical concern is five hours or less upstream of a drinking water intake.

This bill passed the House last year but died in the Senate. During debate, proponents argued the waste tanks in question belong to small, barely profitable conventional well operators who will be forced into expensive upgrades after the ZCCs were revised to include new territory. This may cause them to either plug those wells or go out of business.

Opponents argued that the bill would exempt 887 tanks, 12% of them containing brine and 78% containing petroleum and other pollutants — some of them toxic, including barium, radium and volatile BTEX compounds. In 2020, inspections uncovered 38 tank leaks, 24 of those tanks included in this bill.

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