West Virginia has a lot of gas wells—giant horizontal fracking wells, smaller conventional wells and old gas and oil wells that have been abandoned.
The state Office of Oil and Gas (OOG), within the state Department of Environmental Protection, reports West Virginia has approximately 60,000 active wells and about 15,000 abandoned wells under its jurisdiction.
According to its website, OOG “is responsible for monitoring and regulating all actions related to the exploration, drilling, storage and production of oil and natural gas.” The staff at OOG includes an inspection staff, which responds to complaints and gathers information at well sites.
You would think, given the size of the state’s gas and oil industry, that the inspection unit would be large and well-funded, but it is not. In fact, just the opposite.
The OOG is funded primarily through permitting fees, but as the industry has slowed down and fewer wells are needed to produce more gas, the funding has been “significantly reduced,” according to OOG.
As a result, the size of the inspection staff has steadily declined from 20 to just 14,* and with anticipated staff movement that number will be reduced to 11. That will be 11 field inspectors for 75,000 active and abandoned wells.
The West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization and several state lawmakers are alarmed by that ratio. Delegate Evan Hansen (D-Monongalia) and Senator Bill Ihlenfeld (D-Ohio), along with the Surface Owners are proposing a $100 per year fee on every well that has not yet been plugged to fully fund OOG.
“There is a range of public health and environmental concerns if oil and gas wells and the tanks that store the fluids from those wells are not properly regulated,” Hansen said on Talkline Thursday.
The gas industry opposes the annual fee. One industry official told me the majority of the existing gas wells are “marginal wells” that may net only a few dollars a day profit.
One possible solution would be to use a portion of the severance tax to hire more inspectors. For example, in neighboring Ohio the law requires severance tax money to go to the state’s Department of Natural Resources. In West Virginia, the severance tax goes into the General Fund.
Given the size and importance of the state’s gas industry, having only a handful of field inspectors is woefully short of what is necessary for the OOG to do its job properly. How and where to find the funding is a public policy matter, and one the Legislature should seriously consider in the session that starts next week.
*(Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated there were 40 inspectors. The correct number is 20.)