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W.Va. officials to open Ohio River drilling bids

Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Casey Junkins Moundsville resident Cody Kernan looks to hook a fish in the Ohio River just south of the Arch A. Moore Bridge on Monday. The West Virginia Department of Commerce is scheduled to open bids for the right to drill for natural gas under the river Friday.
Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Casey Junkins
Moundsville resident Cody Kernan looks to hook a fish in the Ohio River just south of the Arch A. Moore Bridge on Monday. The West Virginia Department of Commerce is scheduled to open bids for the right to drill for natural gas under the river Friday.

MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. — Casting his fishing rod into the Ohio River on Monday afternoon, Moundsville resident Cody Kernan said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s plan to drill for natural gas under the body of water in Marshall, Wetzel and Pleasants counties is not much of a concern.

“It would probably work out pretty well,” Kernan said. “That would be a mile or more under the river, so I don’t see why it would be a problem.”

On Friday, officials with the West Virginia Department of Commerce – which operates under Tomblin’s Secretary of Commerce, Keith Burdette – will open bids from drillers seeking the right to extract state-owned minerals from beneath the river. Frackers willing to give the state at least 20 percent worth of production royalties, in addition to a per acre lease payment, have until 3:30 p.m. Thursday to submit their bids.

“Governor Tomblin believes the state of West Virginia and its residents can and should continue to capitalize on the benefits of this abundant natural resource and the development opportunities it brings to the Mountain State,” Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said Monday.

Contractors can drill more than one mile deep before turning the bit horizontally to reach the oil and natural gas beneath the river. The producer can also establish its drilling pad more than one mile away from the target because of the length of the horizontal wells.

However, some environmental activists are urging Tomblin to change his mind. A joint letter mailed to Tomblin by organizations such as the Wetzel County Action Group, the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Concerned Citizens of Ohio and the Athens County Fracking Action Network outlines potential problems that could accompany fracking under the river.

“We believe the question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ regarding earthquakes and potential spills and leaks of hydro fracking fluids and processed wastewater whenever corporations are allowed to proceed with drilling under the river,” the letter states. “How are we ever to believe that the state has the political will, technical capability and community commitment to guarantee that adequate controls, timely supervision and, when needed, ruthless enforcement, would occur on well pads that close to the Ohio River ?”

However, Stadelman emphasized the state will take the necessary steps to ensure the river is protected.

“The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection oversees drilling operations in the state and would have to approve permits related to the proposed drilling on all land owned and managed by the Division of Natural Resources,” he said.

The DNR operates as an arm of the commerce department, while the DEP is a separate department under the direction of cabinet Secretary Randy Huffman.

Scott Hans, chief of the Regulatory Branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Pittsburgh District, said his office has jurisdiction over the navigable waters of the U.S., such as the Ohio River.

“Technically speaking, they would need a permit if they go under the river,” Hans said of the potential driller. “But it is so deep, it would not really be a concern.”

Hans said those constructing pipelines under the river at shallower depths would probably get a little more scrutiny over their plans.

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