West Virginia Gazette
7 Feburary 2009
By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer
Landowners across West Virginia are hoping this is the year lawmakers take action to give them more rights when oil and gas operators show up to drill on their property.
A legislative interim committee is expected to take up the latest version of the Surface Owner's Bill of Rights on Sunday. The bill is being promoted by the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization. It is modeled after legislation adopted in New Mexico and has the support of the West Virginia Farm Bureau.
Dave McMahon, a Charleston lawyer and longtime advocate of surface owners' rights, said last week he hopes committee members advance the bill so it can get the attention of the full Legislature during this year's session.
"The bill drafted by the interim committee is a good first step, but leaves off other things like allowing the surface owner to buy gas, and compensating the surface owner at market value," McMahon said.
The legislation is meant to protect the rights of surface landowners when mineral ownership is separate from the surface ownership, and oil and gas companies make plans to drill for those resources.
Among the biggest concern for landowners is obtaining more notice of drilling proposals and being allowed adequate right to comment on those proposals before they are approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Currently, surface owners must be given a copy of the driller's application to DEP, but not until that application is actually submitted to DEP. By the time that happens, drillers have already selected their well sites and access road location. Surface owners are able to comment only on how the drill site is proposed to be built, not on where on the property it is proposed to be built.
Also, for most surface owners, the only current option to enforce their rights is to go to court.
Under the proposed bill, surface owners would be given 30 days' notice of drilling proposals. Drillers would have to also provide more detailed information about their proposals, and a copy of state law and regulations about drilling.
The legislation also gives both parties time to negotiate an agreement on the drilling plans, compensation for the surface owner and other issues. If the two sides can't agree, the driller then posts a bond to cover possible damages.
"Surface owners think that drillers should contact surface owners before they come onto the land to survey, should give people copies of the statutes and should agree to mediation so surface owners have more of a chance to enforce their existing common law rights when drillers drill wells," McMahon said.
The bill is expected to be taken up at 2 p.m. Sunday during a meeting of the Joint Judiciary Committee.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.