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Editorial: Limited tank exemptions proper for oil and gas

From the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

 You’ve got to give credit to the workers and owners and operators of 42,000 above-ground liquid storage tanks in West Virginia.

They had been operating their relatively small tanks of about 2,100- to 4,200-gallons safely for years, out of notice from the public with nary a problem. Then Freedom Industries’ poorly maintained 40,000-gallon tank leaked a smelly chemical into the Elk River, contaminating the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians for weeks.

The smaller tanks you likely had never heard of had been, and still are, quietly doing their job for the state’s oil and gas industry, catching brine water, crude oil and some hydrocarbons from natural gas and oil coming out of the ground at wells nearby.

Already operated under a series of generally effective regulations to prevent leakage and assure safety, they posed little danger to drinking water in West Virginia. Facilities that operate safely and reliably rarely attract headlines.

Yet, when the much bigger, poorly maintained tank storing a completely different type of substance near a public drinking water intake failed and caused the governor to issue a “do not use” order for water, the smaller, safer tanks and those who own them got caught in the rush to implement new regulations to protect public drinking water.

It is understandable, considering the gravity of the Great Water Crisis of 2014, that legislators went to great lengths to protect water supplies. But, in retrospect, and with a few years of operating experience under the belt of regulators and tank operators, it’s clear imposing an unnecessary level of extra regulation on tanks that pose no significant danger is costly to the state, its employers and some of its citizens who depend on the gas and oil flowing out of marginal wells.

But those big oil and gas companies can afford it, right?

While that industry does have its biggies, many don’t realize the contribution the many small operators of oil and gas wells and pipelines have on the economy: maintaining marginal wells that bring in a little revenue, employing a small workforce and, in some cases, providing free fuel for nearby landowners — folks who otherwise would have to convert to a costly, less reliable fuel source without a working well in the area.

“I’ve worked in the oil and gas business in West Virginia for over 30 years and, in all that time, I’ve never seen a law or regulation that has had such a devastating effect on one sector of our industry,” writes Doug Malcom, a second-generation operator, on the website for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia. “The [Aboveground Storage Tank] Act has proved to be crippling to the smaller, conventional producers. At a time of historically low commodity prices, the addition of costly, duplicative, one-size-fits-all regulation is literally putting oil and gas producers out of business.”

House Bill 2811, being considered in the House of Delegates, would provide regulators and the industry the reasonable relief needed while still doing what’s necessary to protect the state’s water supply. It would not reduce regulation on tanks within zones of critical concern near drinking water intakes.

Protecting the state’s water is important. And applying regulation where needed is reasonable. But the current law is hurting employers and state revenue for no good reason. House Bill 2811 deserves passage.

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