Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said it’s on pace to hire more gas well inspectors following the passage of the Natural Gas Horizontal Well Control Act. But two hiring obstacles still remain: Low pay and an experience prerequisite. Higher permitting fees in the new legislation, DEP spokesman Tom Aluise said, were intended to generate money to hire 14 new Office of Oil and Gas (OOG) staffers — including four inspectors. So far, two inspector positions have been filled, with five left — which includes some previous vacancies. DEP expects to fill them within the next six months. “We knew it was going to take a while,” Aluise said.
They expected it to take about a year, though it might run a bit longer based on the six-month projection. When all the spots are filled, Aluise said, DEP will have 21 inspectors and two supervisors. The OOG staff list now shows 14 inspectors. Inspectors work certain areas — a single county or group of counties. A new hire is working the Brooke-Hancock-Ohio county region of the Northern Panhandle, while another is working Marshall County. Openings remain for Dodd, Tyler, Mingo-Wayne-Cabell, Lewis and Braxton counties. Inspectors have to meet certain qualifications and pass a test, Aluise said. Despite the new legislation intended to increase the candidate pool, “the application numbers haven’t been great,” Aluise said. The current applicant list has 12 qualified people.
The Horizontal Well Control Act raised starting pay to $35,000 for inspectors and $40,000 for supervisors, but it’s still not competitive with industry pay, Aluise said. During the months of negotiations on the Act, industry and DEP officials often said people with the same qualifications can start at $60,000 to $70,000 a year. Inspector qualifications were also subject to intense negotiations. The Act whittled it down from the previous six years’ industry experience to two — with one year credit for those with a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering, an associate degree in petroleum technology or relevant environmental experience. Even one year of experience is still a hiring hurdle, Aluise said. Someone with a four-year degree can’t get a job. They have discussed asking the Legislature to lift that requirement. “We feel like we could train people,” Aluise said.
The Dominion Post asked OOG Chief Jim Martin if the new hires would be sufficient to monitor all the state’s gas wells — conventional and unconventional. Martin said the new hire numbers are specific to act requirements. Whether it’ll be adequate for the big picture is “something we’ll have to look at down the road.” They need to get them all on board and see how it pans out. “The activity level at the time is a critical component,” he said.
During Joint Select Committee discussions of the legislation, some said there are too many wells for too few inspectors. Others said that while there are a lot of wells, not all of them need regular, or even annual, monitoring. According to OOG data, 50,586 active gas wells of all types are in the state — 952 of them Marcellus wells. It gets complicated, because not all horizontal wells are controlled by the Act, which covers wells that disturb three acres or more of land and use 210,000 gallons or more of water in a 30-day period.
In 2010, DEP issued 504 vertical well permits and 445 horizontal. In 2011, the numbers were 275 vertical, 542 horizontal. So far this year, DEP issued 271 permits for horizontal wells covered by the Act — called 6A wells for the portion of the new legislation containing the Act: Section 22 Article 6A.
OOG charts the number 6A permits issued each month. The numbers were 0 in January and February, three each for March and April, 37, May; 56, June; 57, July; 60, August; 55, September. Aluise noted that doesn’t reflect all gas well permitting for the year. For instance, in January and February, DEP issued 32 total vertical permits and 92 total horizontal permits not covered under the Act. Aluise confirmed that the 0 6A permits in January and February stems from an adjustment period following the December 2011 legislation.