A West Virginia legislative committee has advanced a bill that would significantly lengthen the appointment terms for members of the advisory body to the director of the state Division of Natural Resources.
Senate Bill 202 would set the length of all terms for appointees to the Natural Resources Committee to seven years, just two years after the Legislature slashed the length of appointee terms from that allotment.
The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee’s advancement of SB 202 to the full Senate on Monday came three days after senators advanced to the governor two bills that would expand the DNR’s powers.
In 2021, the Legislature adopted SB 514, which set terms of four years for three appointees, three years for two appointees and two years for two appointees.
SB 202 would change term lengths back to seven years.
The bill’s lead sponsor, committee Chairman Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, said that new commissioners could barely get accustomed to being on the seven-member panel.
“And then they get recycled again,” Hamilton said.
DNR Director Brett McMillion said his agency supports the bill, reporting that the term staggering installed by SB 514 of 2021 had resulted in some commissioners serving terms of only one to two years.
“[W]e are a very bureaucratic agency, and sometimes it does take quite a while to see things actually through,” McMillion said. “Sometimes it takes a while to understand that learning curve of how to operate.”
Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, the lead sponsor of SB 514, opposed SB 202, saying the positions are “very sought after” and should be opened up to a greater variety of prospective commission members.
“There are sportsmen or women, they never have a chance to serve on it because the same ones keep on, you know, it’s sort of like they get a monopoly and get locked in there,” Smith said. “And my concern is that’s what’s driving this from behind is they don’t want to leave the commission.”
Under SB 202, commission members could still serve up to two consecutive terms.
Members already holding appointments would keep serving as commissioners until their terms end, unless they’re removed under SB 202.
The commission regulates open seasons and the bag, creel, size, age, weight and sex limits for wildlife that can be legally taken in West Virginia.
The original version of SB 202 would have increased the appointment term of the DNR director from four to seven years, but that provision was removed from the committee substitute version of the bill advanced to the full Senate.
Also Monday, the Senate sent bills to Gov. Jim Justice’s desk that would authorize the DNR to lease state-owned pore spaces in certain areas for carbon sequestration, and allow the division to sell, lease or dispose of property under division control when it’s deemed obsolete or no longer needed.
The Republican-supermajority Senate unanimously passed the bills on Jan. 12 without releasing the bill text until hours later, advancing them to the House of Delegates without allowing any opportunity for public review. The House overwhelmingly passed both bills, SBs 161 and 162, on Friday, after approving minor changes to the legislation that would required them to go back to the Senate for concurrence.
The Senate’s initial approval came via a suspension of state constitutional rules requiring that bills be read on three separate days before passage.
Article VI of the West Virginia Constitution requires that a bill be “fully and distinctly read” on three days in both the Senate and the House of Delegates “unless in case of urgency” — an exception requiring 80% of members present to suspend the rule.
Republicans hold 31 of 34 Senate seats, giving them the power to suspend the rule in any party-line vote.
SB 162 would allow the DNR’s director, with Department of Commerce approval, to lease state-owned pore spaces underlying state forests, natural and scenic areas, and wildlife management areas under division control for carbon sequestration. The director would be prohibited from leasing state-owned pore spaces underlying land that is designated as state parks or state forests.
Proponents of SB 162 say the measure would support the state’s momentum in a federal hydrogen energy and economic development hub competition the government and its partners are in. Opponents of the hydrogen hub say it would fail to deliver economic or environmental benefits. They say they fear environmentally harmful methane leaking from “blue hydrogen” production, as well as carbon capture and sequestration technology being unproven on a commercial scale.
Carbon capture, use and sequestration is an umbrella term for technology that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and uses it to create products or store it permanently underground. Such technology retrofits commercial power plants to mitigate coal and gas asset emissions.
Commerce Secretary James Bailey has said SB 161 would remedy a DNR inability to grant right-of-way access to adjoining property owners, convey property to a public service district to facilitate a project and pursue economic development projects with potential partners interested in unused property that isn’t a state park or state forest.