DEP acclimating to gas boom, permit delay stabilizing - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

DEP acclimating to gas boom; permit delay stabilizing

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West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection is adjusting to expanding activity in the Marcellus Shale region and seems to have gotten a better handle on permitting delay.

Last year, Randy Huffman, secretary of the DEP, told industry leaders at a workshop that the average time to get a permit had climbed to an average of 110 days last spring. The days it took to get a horizontal well permit peaked at as many as 130 days at one point, Huffman said.

At the workshop, Huffman said his goal was to bring that number down to 60.

Since then, he said he's realized a 60 day permit turnaround might not be possible. Currently, the average time to get a permit is about 75 days, and Huffman said he and his agency are comfortable with that figure.

The numbers of days required will always fluctuate with the speed of permits being submitted.

"You can't go hire people just because you have an up tick in the number of permits coming in, especially it being a volatile industry," Huffman said. "Sometimes permit applications are up and sometimes they're down. We try to manage that on a pretty even keel."

Huffman said he hopes to get the days it takes to process the permit to a level that is reasonable and predictable.

"What I'm trying to do is create an expectation so that the industry can do their planning and preparation without us going from 60 days one month to 120 days the next month," Huffman said. "I'm just trying to get some consistency."

He said the 75 day target can be realistically met by the agency, but at least one industry representative thinks 75 days isn't fast enough.

"Seventy-five days – we're not happy with that," said Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association. "We're used to the good old days when they turned permits around in thirty days or less."

There are limits on how fast the DEP could process a permit. With a required 30 day comment period, the permit could definitely not be issued any earlier than that.

There about five to six employees dedicated to permitting at any given time and processing the applications involves a lot of review of the engineering of several aspects of the well pad and rig.

"They're just larger permits with a lot more engineering going into them," Huffman said. "… This is a lot more involved than the old traditional wells."

Horizontal wells use more water, make a larger surface footprint and drill deeper than most conventional wells. While there tends to be less disturbance per unit of gas collected, issuing a permit for the operation can involve numerous studies of the engineering needs for the site.

Each permit must address erosion control, pond-building, road construction well-pad sites and a long list of elements involved with the site

Huffman said he was comfortable with hiring levels in both permitting and inspecting divisions of the DEP. The initial adjustment to the speed and scale of the horizontal drilling boom in West Virginia provided challenges, but Huffman said the DEP has responded well to what is essentially a "completely different industry."

In 2006, the DEP didn't process a single horizontal well permit. That climbed to 500 by 2011. As of mid-April this year, the DEP has already received applications for 194 well permits and issued 168 of those permits.

"We're staffed up and rolling pretty good," Huffman said. "… I'm very comfortable. I'm happy our folks have responded as well as they have. They really picked up the pace and went from a small regulatory program to a large regulatory program and they did it in a short amount of time."