West Virginia House votes to boost natural gas drilling

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The West Virginia House voted 60-40 on Thursday to allow drilling for natural gas beneath property where 75 percent of owners of its royalty interests agree.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

Supporters said the bill enables a supermajority of a property’s owners to make money from West Virginia’s large underground gas reserves and would give the state more tax revenues and an economic boost.

Under current law, a single co-owner can block drilling, though a developer can sue to partition the property and proceed.

“I believe it’s important to the economy of West Virginia,” Delegate John Kelly said. The Parkersburg Republican said he has no personal interests in potential royalties or drilling leases, unlike many other legislators who were nonetheless ruled eligible to vote on the legislation.

Critics argued that it strips property rights from minority owners who oppose leasing their mineral rights to gas developers. Under the bill, they would be guaranteed a share of the highest royalty or a share in the producer’s revenues and costs as an investor.

“We are trying to legislate the use of that property,” Delegate Isaac Sponaugle said. The Franklin Democrat said he has letters on his desk from Chevron and other special interests that want the legislation. “It’s not good policy,” he said.

The bill deals only with co-owners of a single tract, said Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott. Developers wouldn’t be able to use the properties of non-consenting co-owners for gas storage, injection wells or disposal wells for fracking waste. Gas companies wouldn’t be able to place drilling pads and build roads without the written consent of the owners of the surface property, he said.

Horizontal drilling enables reaching underground mineral formations from drilling pads a mile away, Shott said. “If you’re a non-consenting co-tenant, they cannot use your surface without your consent.”

“What this bill does is create a method to resolve an impasse, a deadlock, that may exist when a small minority wishes to refrain from participating,” Shott said. Frequently many co-owners are involved with jointly inherited properties.

At a public hearing last week, Lissa Lucas, a Democratic candidate for a House seat who opposes the bill, was escorted from the podium for reading the names of legislators and their individual campaign contributions from energy companies.

On Thursday, Delegate Charlotte Lane, a Charleston Republican, said Lucas “disrespected our chamber,” noting that campaign finance records are public, and said the energy industry fuels homes and businesses, pays taxes and supports schools.

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