Boom: The give-and-take of North-Central WV gas drilling - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Boom: The give-and-take of North-Central WV gas drilling

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Since 2007, the Marcellus Shale gas boom has affected the coal-dominant Mountain State in more ways than one — depending on who you ask.

Once a quiet, rural getaway, the North-Central region of West Virginia has become an industrial hub for the state. Many of the Mountain State's counties, including Doddridge, Harrison, Tyler, Wetzel and Marion, to name a few, sit right in the heart of the Marcellus basin. These quiet, dusty communities are now home to sprawling drilling rigs, well pads and pipelines.

To some, the increased industrialization has been a phenomenal opportunity for economic prosperity in the state, whereas others view the development as a hazardous eyesore.

Thriving economy

According to a study published by West Virginia University in December 2010, the oil and natural gas industry directly paid $65.9 million in severance taxes to the state in 2009. Its economic activity generated another $44.5 million in other state taxes.

“Overall, the shale gas boom has greatly affected overall economic output in the state, helping West Virginia record a GDP growth rate for 2013 that was third highest among the 50 states,” said John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at WVU.

Bob Hart, president of the Appalachian chapter of the National Association of Royalty Owners, called the Marcellus Shale boom “an incredible thing,” citing increased revenue, new jobs, decreased gas prices and the ability to become independent from foreign sources of oil as a few benefits to the boom.

“It's helping in just about every aspect,” he said, adding that the boom has been a “huge benefit to the individual counties, state and all of our citizens.”

On a more local level, Doddridge County Assessor David Sponaugle said Marcellus Shale drilling has had a tremendous impact on the county — which was the third-highest natural gas producing county in the state in 2011, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

In a lumped county value that includes property values, land and buildings, natural resources, vehicles and machinery, and everything in between, Sponaugle said, “because of the Marcellus Shale drilling in Doddridge County, the values are up tremendously.

“Doddridge County is a small, rural county,” he added. “We aren't adding a dozen or so housing developments here like other places, we're not seeing the new fast food restaurants and Walmarts … but our value increase is coming from activities surrounding the Marcellus Shale drilling.”

According to Sponaugle, production at the wellhead, pipelines, rigs and other equipment related to the oil and gas industry, as well as the MarkWest gas processing plant, have all contributed to the increased value.

“There are so many things that come into play there,” Sponaugle said. “It's all of those things together.”

And on an individual level, many residents who own mineral rights to gas being extracted are benefiting from the boom as well. According to Hart, the impact has been “wonderful” for the people who have leases in the Marcellus Shale regions being developed in northern West Virginia.

“They're receiving a direct impact,” Hart said. “Many have had their properties leased and are having their properties drilled.”

Jess McHenry, a Wheeling resident who partially owns surface and mineral rights to property being drilled in Wetzel County, said he has “no complaints.”

“It's certainly changed the topography of Marshall County,” McHenry said. “Where it used to be remotely rural, there's a lot of activity.”

However, McHenry said his general take on the boom is positive.

“It's been certainly a big boom to the local economy,” McHenry said, “and it should help the country become energy independent.”

But Mirijana Beram, a member of the Doddridge County Watershed Association, noted the potential complications involved in the leasing process.

“A lot of people that have mineral rights aren't getting money they thought they were going to get,” Beram said. “It depends on the kind of lease they sign. Some of these companies are sort of taking some of those folks' profit because some who own mineral rights are being charged for production costs.”

Hart said he does see some concerns from mineral owners, including potential damages to property and threats to their safety, in addition to occasional leasing issues that arise.

“We have clients that have concerns that have to do in most cases with how the leases are written and what the landowners agree to,” Hart said. “The common complaint is the company is not paying them what they're entitled to in terms of the lease.”

He added, however, that there are “many happy mineral owners in this country that aren't having issues (and) the income coming to them is more than they've ever dreamed.”

Necessary inconvenience

While many of those are reaping the benefits of owning the rights to wanted minerals, others are bearing the burden of nearby drilling without such perks.

Many West Virginians have been forced to face the issue of Split Estate, which is the term for a situation where the rights to the surface and the minerals underneath the land are owned separately. This can be a problem for surface owners because mineral rights “trump” surface rights, according to Julie Archer, project manager with the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization.

“It's a little complicated,” Archer explained. “Basically, under common law, if you own the surface land and someone else owns the minerals, they have the right to come on your land to get to and develop those minerals.”

And in the (rather common) case for those who don't have the rights to the minerals under their property, Beram said, “Surface owners are being presented with situations where land is being taken for these well pads and they have no choice in it.”

But it's not only surface owners whose land is being drilled on that are being affected by the nearby drilling, Archer added, “It's affecting their neighbors and entire communities.”

“The impacts extend beyond the well site,” she said. “In general, it's had a major impact on the quality of life for people living in areas where there's heavy Marcellus Shale development.”

Beram, who is one of those residents living in the middle of the development, said there has been a notable increase in heavy truck traffic, in addition to “a lot of” pipelines, compressor stations and well pads going in.

“Our rural community has become an industrial site,” Beram said.

Randy Huffman, cabinet secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, acknowledged that the department has received some complaints about the drilling, but he said that they have been trying to eliminate the issues as they arise.

“We get some citizen complaints,” Huffman said. “There's a very real impact in the communities.

“We deal with those (complaints),” he added. “It's just going to be an evolution we go through and we'll deal with them as they come up.”

But Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said the inconvenience is a temporary necessity for an important development.

“I guess any time there's an industrial process going on in your neighborhood there is an inconvenience,” DeMarco said. “I don't like sitting in traffic when they have to pave the road, but I know they have to pave the road.

“If you don't like progress, you're going to be inconvenienced by any industrial process,” he said, adding that looking at the long-term picture of the processes will “put those inconveniences in perspective.”

Environmental concerns

While some in the industry say hydraulic fracturing is perfectly safe, others have raised policy issues and environmental concerns with the procedure.

Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at the National Resources Defense Council, for example, said the hydraulic fracturing process “can have a very, very big impact on the environment,” adding that a major contributing factor to the procedure's dangerous potential stems from weak regulations over the industry.

“The rules at the state and federal level are too weak to help health and the environment,” Mall said.

As an example, Mall cited the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA, which regulates hazardous waste. However, the law currently exempts oil and gas exploration and production waste, “so oil and gas companies can say, ‘Our waste is not hazardous,' but that doesn't mean it's not toxic,” she said.

But according to Huffman, there is also no reason to classify the waste as “toxic.”

“It's not classified as toxic waste either; that's another classification,” Huffman said. “There are toxic and hazardous wastes, and in the natural gas industry there are different types of waste.”

For example, Huffman said drilling waste, the material that actually comes from the hole that is drilled is, the single most waste in the drilling process and there's “nothing hazardous or toxic about it,” he said.

Huffman did, however, say “no one can deny” that there are problems, but he said most issues that do arise are isolated, and the plans that have been put in place to control such concerns as sediment and erosion, water treatment and air pollution are effectively being followed.

“Yeah, a lot of bad things could happen,” he said, “but bad things are not happening because we are regulating the industry, and we will adjust and adapt to make sure people are being protected.”

DeMarco also defended the legislation and the safety of the industry.

“It's not hazardous waste,” DeMarco said. “If it were hazardous waste, it would be covered by RCRA, but it's not classified as hazardous waste.

“I'm not going to tell you it doesn't click the Geiger counter, but so does road building, so does mining — any earth disturbance would, simply because there's naturally-produced radioactivity in the ground,” he added. “That does not mean it is at a level that is hazardous for human health.”

And on the issue of water contamination, DeMarco said, “It's not a problem.

“There has been no groundwater contamination,” he said. “There hasn't been any discharge into streams or rivers or anything because we are not allowed to do that.”

Despite the industry's confidence, some citizens aren't convinced.

Tom Bond, a farmer and retired chemistry professor from Jane Lew in Lewis County, for example, said he fears that the drilling could force him out of business.

“It hasn't impacted me directly yet, (but) it has me in a state of alarm because I've observed it elsewhere,” Bond said. “There are a number of things that happen with these drill sites,” he said, such as property damage, and air and water contamination, which he is afraid could poison his livestock.

“One of the worst things that could happen for us is (having) to move off the farm,” he said. “If we have a shale well on the farm, we'll have to cut back operations, but our expenses are going to go on the same way.”

Beram, too, said the industry is imposing a lot of risks to local streams, creeks, water wells and air quality.

“Some of our major creeks … are constant reddish color — that's all a result of runoff that's coming down from well site and pipeline jobs,” Beram said. “It's just a sad situation.

“The southern part of the state was destroyed by coal,” she added. “I'd like to protect what we have.”