An emergency rule would temporarily require Marcellus shale natural gas drillers to detail how they will protect area land, manage the large volumes of water involved, respond to accidents, and notify the public in advance of operations, said West Virginia regulators.
The rule would last 15 months once approved by the Secretary of State. The rule, ordered by acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last month, should provide some regulatory oversight while a special legislative committee attempts to craft permanent and more wide-ranging rules for Marcellus drilling. With the industry at odds with environmental and surface rights groups over what those rules should say, a compromise bill eluded lawmakers during the year’s regular session.
Among other concerns, the surface rights groups said the executive doesn’t tackle light or noise pollution from well sites, spacing between wells and homes or the rights of surface owners.
The natural gas industry believes a huge reserve sits trapped in the mile-deep Marcellus shale, a massive rock formation that stretches beneath West Virginia and other states. Tapping it can require an unconventional horizontal drilling method as well as hydraulic fracturing. Also known as fracking, that process relies on water drawn from area sources that mixes with chemicals and sand and then drillers pump it into wells to crack the rock.
Operators face considerable up-front costs, but promise that developing the field will yield jobs and economic activity for West Virginia. Critics question the potential threat to area land and water supplies from fracking fluid. Related concerns include water sources depleted for fracking, the storing and disposing of frack fluid, and damage to rural roads by convoys of drill rigs and water trucks.
Monday’s rule calls for drillers to supply engineer-certified plans for building well sites and for controlling erosion and sediment runoff. Operators that will frack with more than 210,000 gallons of water in a month must describe where they will get the water from and when, what chemicals they plan to add to it, and how they will dispose of the fracking fluid afterward.
Once drilled, operators must sheath the well’s walls in cement for at least its first 300 feet. This casing must extend at least 50 feet below any underground water sources, which typically sit much closer to the surface than the Marcellus field. The casing must be strong enough to withstand the pressure from hydraulic fracturing, and at least 1,200 pounds per square inch of pressure.
Well sites that disturb three or more acres require safety plans. These must detail the chemicals and other materials at the site, identify all schools and public facilities within one mile, and provide contact information for those locations as well as for the operator, local inspectors, DEP and area first responders. They must also explain how they would evacuate a well site and surrounding area during an emergency.