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METRO NEWS By Brad McElhinny
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — People on all sides of natural gas issues spoke during a public hearing this morning, but a bill dealing with the rights of property owners quickly moved into uncertain territory.
As the public hearing began today, House Judiciary Chairman John Shott said a bill that differed in some significant ways from one that originally passed out of the House Energy Committee was likely to be considered.
The changes would likely provide increased options to minority property owners who don’t wish to allow drilling on their land.
“We are opposed to the version that came out of Energy. We are in favor of the committee substitute in Judiciary,” David McMahon, who represents the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, said during the public hearing.
Energy companies and some groups that represent royalty owners and farm owners have said those changes would upset what is already a tenuous balancing act on the bill.
Bills dealing with natural gas drilling and property rights have fallen apart many times over the years, either failing to balance the rights of the various players or being weighed down by a variety of inter-related issues.
This morning, several representatives of those groups described their position during the public hearing as favoring “the bill as it passed out of the Energy Committee.”
“It is something on which royalty owners agree and industry agrees,” said Maribeth Anderson, director of government affairs for Antero Resources.
“Is it a perfect bill? I worry that the plan to make a good and fair bill into a perfect bill upsets a balance.”
Lobbyist Jason Webb, representing the West Virginia Land and Mineral Owners Association, had similar comments.
“We have great faith in the process. We were engaged a variety of times through this process,” Webb said.
He added, “We believe the product here today has many, many protections.”
And then Webb concluded, “We support co-tenancy as it is right now.”
The Judiciary Committee was expected to take up the bill on the policy commonly called co-tenancy during a meeting directly after the public hearing.
There was a long delay, though, and when the committee finally gathered Shott said the committee would recess, with majority members going into a caucus.
Close watchers of the bill said there was likely to also be a caucus of all House Republicans on the co-tenancy issue.
The co-tenancy bill is meant to deal with situations in which the majority of owners of a property want to consent to natural gas drilling but others do not or can’t be located.
As the bill has been considered by the Legislature so far, 75 percent of rights owners would have to give their consent for drilling.
They could receive a production royalty equal to the highest percentage royalty paid to one of the consenting parties. Or, they could opt to share in revenue and cost of development — essentially winding up as a participant.
The West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization has been pushing for a couple of amendments, McMahon said.
“We’re against it unless two amendments are made,” McMahon said in a Jan. 25 interview as the legislation was being introduced.
One, McMahon said, would protect the rights of surface owners whose property winds up in heavy use by machinery — no matter which adjacent tract winds up producing the natural gas.
“You’re going to be spending more time on my surface with more trucks and more light and more noise,” McMahon said.
The second provision has to do with the minority that doesn’t sign a lease, he said.
“I don’t think I should get stuck with the terms of the other 75 percenters,” he said, describing a possible situation where a family of four cousins might be presented with an agreement with three consenting to the terms and the fourth thinking it’s awful.