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Gas drilling bill emerges from Senate committee


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislation to help natural gas companies force holdout mineral owners to allow drilling emerged from committee late Thursday night, and is headed for the floor Senate late in the session, but still with plenty of time for the industry to win passage of a bill that’s been a key legislative priority for several years.

Shortly before midnight, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a rewritten and amended version of Senate Bill 576, despite opposition from land and mineral owner groups and from the West Virginia Farm Bureau.

Oil and gas lobbyists say the legislation is needed to help them pool together large enough tracts of land and gas reserves for large-scale horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the state’s Marcellus Shale region. Industry technology has fueled an economic boom, but also created problems for surface owners who worry about damage to their homeplaces and peaceful rural lifestyle and generated conflicts between gas companies and mineral owners over how the wealth created is divided.

“We want West Virginia to be a leader while at the same time protecting the rights of surface owners and mineral owners,” said Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan.

The bill that passed out of Trump’s committee was just the latest of multiple versions of such legislation that has been floated so far this session, as the Judiciary chairman has coordinated various meetings of interested parties to try to come up with a bill that would not suffer the fate of legislation two years ago that died on the House floor the last night of the session in a rare tie vote.

Under the bill, gas companies could force drilling over the objections of a co-owner of mineral rights unless that co-owner holds at least a fourth of the minerals. That’s tougher language for gas companies than a previous bill, which allowed companies to force drilling onto mineral owners unless those unwilling owners held at least a third of the rights. The bill also contains a provision that allows what the industry calls “joint development” of multiple contiguous oil and gas leases for modern horizontal drilling, unless that type of drilling is specifically prohibited in the lease.

The rewritten bill, taken up by Judiciary in a session that shorted at 9 p.m. Thursday, contains a new section that allows unwilling co-owners to be forced to allow drilling only if the company involved has an agreement with the surface landowner of the site. That language is intended to provide protections for surface owners, giving them some leverage to control exactly where and how the gas development occurs on their property. In many parts of the state’s gas-producing region — as with West Virginia’s coalfields — surface owners don’t necessarily own the rights to the minerals under their land.

But Dave McMahon, founder of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, noted that the language does not require new surface owner consent for drilling of a previous agreement — no matter how old — exists. McMahon said that the bill should at least require a new surface agreement so that the larger surface disturbance required for horizontal drilling could be taken into account.

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