MOUNDSVILLE - As a former West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection inspector, Tim Greene believes allowing drilling and fracking in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations beneath the Ohio River should not create any problems for the region's drinking water supply.
But he does question the wisdom of such a move.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, through approval from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, is seeking bids from drillers for the right to extract natural gas and oil from state-owned land beneath the river in Marshall, Wetzel and Pleasants counties. Tomblin believes the state should collect at least a 20 percent share of the production royalties, and that all associated fees should be paid by the driller.
Greene, DEP Oil and Gas Chief James Martin and West Virginia University Marshall Miller Professor of Energy Tim Carr agree the chance of a disaster from the river fracking operations would be slim, but Greene said he is not sure why the state needs to proceed with such a plan.
"I know the state needs money, but how did this pop into somebody's head?" Greene, who owns Land and Mineral Management of Appalachia, said. "You hate to be a guinea pig sometimes."
Any potential driller would reach the minerals through horizontal drilling, as the company could set up a rig about a mile from the river. Martin said companies would then drill more than a mile deep before turning the bit horizontally to reach the oil and natural gas beneath the river.
"The laterals would be several thousand feet deep, at least 6,000 feet below the riverbed. A lateral well bore can have a surface location a mile (5,280 feet) away from the river," Martin said.
Carr concurred with Martin that the potential for problems with fracking beneath the river is minimal, as long as officials take proper precautions.
"You need to make sure the pad is not in the floodplain and is well protected," Carr said.
Martin serves under DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, a member of Tomblin's cabinet. The DNR falls under the jurisdiction of Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette.
Greene said the state likely would be better off looking for a drill deal elsewhere.
"How do regulate yourself?" Greene said. "The governor signs off on it. I would imagine the state has a lot of other acreage they could work on before drilling under the river.
"Fracking has not affected drinking water yet. This is a little different. But the engineers are very good at what they do."
Firms may bid for the right to extract natural gas by the Sept. 11 application deadline, and officials will open the bids at 1 p.m. Sept. 26 in Charleston. Tomblin's letter states that he wants a driller to proceed without deducting production costs from the state's revenue. In many drilling contracts, the company is allowed to reduce payments to the property owner by making deductions for certain costs associated with getting wells online.
"Once a company has a contract, they would apply for a permit," Martin said.
In addition to the 20 percent royalty, state officials are seeking a per acre lease payment, as the procurement document notes the contract will go to the highest bidder.
Tunneling under the river does take place, as Eureka Hunter, a division of Magnum Hunter, already has a pipeline running to connect Utica Shale production operations in Ohio to the MarkWest Energy processing plant at Mobley, W.Va.
DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said no additional regulations would be needed for an operation extracting gas from under the Ohio River.
"There would be no different requirements in the regulation of this operation than for any horizontal drilling operation. The regulations are in place to help ensure the protection of both the environment and public health - a task the DEP takes very seriously," Gillenwater said.
Delegate Mike Ferro, D-Marshall, said he wanted to learn more about the proposal before forming an opinion on it.