WV LANDOWNERS CLAIM SENATE BILL GIVES INDUSTRY ALL THE CARDS

Land owners fear SB 576 strips them of negotiating rights for gas royalties and forces them to bend to the industry, while industry lobbiests are working their magic words with WV legislators.
By Chris Lawrence

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of the House Energy Committee heard a mixed level of support and criticism Monday during a public hearing on Senate Bill 576. The measure is heavily backed by the Natural Gas industry which would include forced pooling and joint development for the industry.

“These gas reserves are the way we’re going to work our way out of the morass we’re in right now,” said State Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher in encouraging support of the measure. “Senate Bill 576 creates a platform that is fair and reasonable to property owners and results in an environment that is collectively good for the industry and those people who work within it.”

But there were a myriad of speakers who strode to the podium in complete disagreement with Thrasher’s assessment of what is “fair and reasonable.” Their criticisms were widely spread over different parts of the legislation.

“We’ve made the companies rich on the back of my family and other West Virginia mineral owners,” said Linda Stymmel of Morgantown who owns 15 separate properties with gas leases in Monongalia and Preston Counties.

“Under this bill my property would be forced into pooling that would modernize what’s beneficial to the company and not landowners. It’s unconstitutional to force me by the government of West Virginia to abide by other gas leases made by naive mineral owners that would affect me and my family for infinity.”

One of the biggest criticisms is the allowance in the measure to use existing gas leases which may have been created years ago when horizontal drilling and other modern drilling practices were unheard of. Critics say companies will enjoy all of the wealth from the gas boom and landowners will be left with very little and a mess to clean up.

“West Virginia needs this resource to bring us out of poverty,” said landowner William Swan of Harrison County. “Not take citizens property they have an opportunity to make money on and transfer that property to the natural gas industry. ”

“It’s about taking the money from the people of West Virginia and giving it to large corporations out of state,” said Jacqueline Romeo of Harrison County.

“This bill forces a pooling provision into everyone’s leases without the benefit of any negotiation whatsoever,” said Lobbyist Jason Webb speaking for mineral rights owners. “That’s difficult for our members to understand why the government wants to unilaterally decided the terms of a contract and force that on anyone.”

Even some within the drilling business raised concerns about the measure like Ike Morris owner of WACO Oil and Gas.

“We need to split this royalty up a little more,” said Morris during the public hearing. “You hear they’re going to give everybody jobs, but if you give us a little bit more of the money and the jobs will be here, maybe we won’t all have to work in the oil and gas business.”

Former state Senator Mike Ross who is also in the drilling business was equally critical. He suggested lawmakers pull the measure this session and study it during their interim meetings over the next year to come to a better agreement.

But Rebecca McPhail of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association encouraged lawmakers to hold fast to the legislation for the future of the state.

“The oil and natural gas industry is a vital component for growth here,” said McPhail. “Providing the feed stock for downstream chemical manufacturing and contributing the the state’s ability to reduce energy costs, the shale revolution is an integral part of West Virginia’s present and future and a rich part of our state’s history.”

“We are sitting on top of an enormous amount of oil and gas here in West Virginia, one of the largest resources of oil and gas in the world,” said Ann Blankenship, Executive Director of the Oil and Natural Gas Association. “But right now, our laws in West Virginia make it nearly impossible for the oil and gas to be fully developed. Our laws require that even if a fraction of one percent of a mineral owner doesn’t consent to development, development cannot occur.”

The bill sits in the House Energy Committee awaiting action in the final week of the regular legislative session.