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Senate postpones vote on gas drilling bill

Staff report

The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Senate postponed action Monday on legislation that would bring about forced pooling, which natural gas drillers have been wanting for years.

S.B. 576, the Cotenancy Mineral Development Act, was up for a final reading and vote, but it was held over until Tuesday.

The Senate’s delay came the day opponents of the bill described it as a threat to property owners’ rights and six days after legislative leadership and Secretary of Commerce Woody Thrasher spoke in favor of it at a pro-gas development rally on the Capitol steps.

The West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association sees S.B, 576 as a job creator that would put people to work and lead to increased investment and revenue for the state and local governments.

But groups representing property owners see it differently.

“Senate Bill 576 is a total betrayal of the people of West Virginia by the State Senate,” Charles Wilfong, president of the West Virginia Farm Bureau, said at a news conference Monday morning as the Senate began its floor session.

S.B. 576, he said, “legalizes the taking of our property rights.”

Wilfong said the gas industry indicated before the session began that it was not interested in forced pooling this year. But as the bill moved through committee, forced pooling took on a new name — lease integration — he said.

Julie Archer, project manager for the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, said the cotenancy part of S.B. 576 would allow gas companies to drill horizontal wells on leased property if the mineral rights were acquired before horizontal drilling was even contemplated.

“That’s a big loophole that needs to be closed,” she said.

The lease integration part would allow drillers to build access roads on private land without first obtaining consent of the property owner, she said.

Dwayne O’Dell, director of government affairs for the West Virginia Farm Bureau, described S.B. 576 by saying, “It’s really about setting up a private eminent domain for EQT. They want to be able to force their way in and not pay  for it.”

Wilfong and the others said they want the Legislature to tell gas companies to negotiate with property owners in good faith.

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