The state agency tasked with regulating oil and gas permitting, inspections and the plugging of abandoned wells is facing a major budgetary shortfall and is expecting to cut staff by more than 35 percent.
James Martin, director of the Office of Oil and Gas for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection told members of the DEP Environmental Protection Advisory Council Tuesday that permit requests from the industry were down substantially this year. The Office of Oil and Gas receives the bulk of its funding from permitting fees.
“It’s going to be a big change for us,” Martin said. “I’ve never really experienced this, certainly during my time in state government nothing to this kind of degree.”
Martin said the office is expecting to cut staff “across the board” from roughly 40 to about 25 employees. That cut includes inspectors, he said.
The revenue shortfall is tied to a decline in new drilling activity. Last year, Martin said the agency had between 35 and 40 permit requests. In March and April the office saw just six and five permits, respectively. The oil and gas industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Angie Rosser, director of the conservation group, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the agency’s current financial challenges highlight why the Office of Oil and Gas needs to diversify its funding stream.
Last year, the Legislature failed to pass a series of bills that would have funneled more money toward the office.
Water Quality Standards
The advisory council, which was created by statute in 1994 to help advise the DEP on program and policy development, also voted to create a new subcommittee that will spend the next year reviewing the science surrounding a multi-year battle to update the state’s water quality standards.
The rules govern the amount of pollution that can be discharged into the state’s streams and rivers. WVDEP first proposed revising the human health criteria in the state's water quality standards in 2018. The agency proposed updating standards for 60 pollutants in line with 2015 suggestions made by the U.S. EPA. Two-thirds of the updates limit the amount of certain chemicals that can be discharged into rivers and streams. One-third allowed more pollution to enter rivers and streams
The proposal sparked controversy, most notably pushback from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association. In 2019 the Legislature adopted a bill that required WVDEP to hold off on updating the standards until 2021 and go back to the drawing board.
Laura Cooper, assistant director of the WVDEP's Division of Water and Waste Management, told the council on Tuesday the agency is moving forward incrementally with the updates in the hopes it will ameliorate some of the previous controversy that plagued the water quality standards.
The new subcommittee would address the 70 remaining human health criteria. It would consist of WVDEP staff and members of the advisory council would meet monthly for one year and review the latest science on human health criteria.
“We’d engage in discussion, give open feedback to each other and listen to each other and discuss and really come up with what West Virginia sees as the policy that we want moving forward and be able to recommend something to the secretary by May of next year,” Cooper said. “Again, this is not an open ended thing. It’s just one more year to look at these with detail.”
Rosser, with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the idea that WVDEP would continue to study the human health criteria after looking at the issue for years seemed like a stall tactic.
“We put a lot of resources and money to fully participate in these three years of public input and now we’re being asked to participate in another year,” Rosser said. “It puts us at a disadvantage. We don’t have the resources to hire additional staff to do this.”