Tapping it can require an unconventional horizontal drilling method as well as hydraulic fracturing. Also known as fracking, that process relies on water drawn from area sources that's mixed with chemicals and sand and then pumped into wells to crack the rock.
As a result of the production boom, natural gas severance tax collections in West Virginia are expected to surge.
But despite the welcome news, some are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said the proposal to divert money into a fund that's untouchable for years comes at a time of a shrinking state budget.
"In theory, I'm not sure how anyone could not support leaving something for their children and grandchildren," he said. "The problem is that we are looking at budget deficits in West Virginia."
The Legislature agreed in April to cut ongoing spending by $28 million and expects to face more budget pressures next year.
The oil and gas industry worries that talk of creating a permanent fund could veer onto another subject, such as tax rates, DeMarco said.
Kessler said his legislation would not increase severance tax rates.
Boettner estimates that an oil and gas trust fund started now could accumulate $2 billion to $4 billion by 2040, if it wasn't tapped. But that wouldn't be politically practical, he said, adding that the fund would probably need to be accessible within five to 10 years to build public support.
West Virginia House Speaker Tim Miley said some form of a Future Fund "carries great potential." He and Kessler, along with the House and Senate Finance committee chairmen, plan to meet with other legislators who visited North Dakota as they prepare for next year's session.
Getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot requires super-majority support in both legislative chambers, and Kessler said he thinks that is attainable.
"Rather than pouring it all into the General Revenue fund and spending every dime we get and wake up 20 years from now and say, 'What did we do with all that money,' we could say, 'Hey, we put it in the bank and put some aside," he said.
That could be welcome money for a state struggling on many fronts.
In July, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said West Virginia ranked among the worst four states for life expectancy and healthy life expectancy. In June, a report by the national KIDS COUNT project — backed by Annie E. Casey Foundation — found that 26 percent of West Virginia's children live in poverty. The report also said West Virginia's educational system ranks fourth-worst in the nation, citing in part a lack of quality pre-kindergarten programs.
And while West Virginia has been a coal-producing powerhouse for generations, Kessler noted, some of its most economically stressed areas are in the heart of the coalfields.
"When the (coal) seams got thinner and the jobs were done, there was just nothing to sustain their communities," Kessler said. "I don't want to see that happen again ... when I see another golden opportunity where we have something in great supply and enormous demand."
Associated Press writers Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, and James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D., contributed to this report.
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