Official: WVU Lacks Info

Owner of mineral rights on property not always known

Morgantown Dominion Post
5 June 2011
By David Beard

WVU owns about 19,000 acres in the state — but its ownership of mineral rights is still questionable, spokesman John Bolt said.

The university might be open to selling some gas exploration rights in the future, but there are no current plans to do so, a legal spokesman said.

Bolt said WVU has previously leased land for drilling. Several conventional wells on WVU’s Reedsville farm generate some royalty income.

Mineral rights ownership has become a hot topic as Marcellus gas well drilling increases — drilling company researchers pore over deeds in county courthouses so they can approach mineral owners about leases. Surface owners without mineral rights do what they can to benefit and preserve the integrity of their lands, as The Dominion Post has previously reported.

But the lack of information “is not a new thing for us,” Bolt said.

“Going back for a year or more, we realized we needed to get a better handle on our property holdings in the state” before Marcellus entered the public consciousness.

Tracking down the facts isn’t an easy process, because of WVU’s extensive holdings and the many deeds involved. For example, a gift of land may have gone through a series of heirs and owners.

Another problem: WVU has had boards of governors and boards of regents, and county systems don’t match all that up.

Determining mineral rights ownership calls for “a slow and methodical approach in 55 courthouses,” Bolt said.

When WVU does learn it owns the rights, Bolt said, it reserves them. “Being good stewards of what folks have entrusted to us, we protect whatever rights we have.”

Bolt said he’s not aware of active requests or interest from drillers.

Board of Governors Chairman Carolyn Long said the board has not discussed Marcellus issues. “I can’t tell you what we plan to do.” Direction would come from the president’s office.

The Dominion Post submitted questions to President Jim Clement’s office, asking if WVU would have an interest in leasing minerals to earn some royalty income, what criteria would govern the decision, and whether WVU would be required to seek bids as the Division of Natural Resources must for state forests.

Clements was in Charleston for BOG meetings, but General Counsel William Hutchens submitted this statement: “In line with our land-grant responsibility to be involved in public policy, environmental regulations, including water, and technology around Marcellus shale, the university may be willing to have some drilling on its property, but we’re not sure about all the structures that would need to be in place.

“There have been discussions,” he said, “but there are no current plans as we’re still in the process of investigating all angles of what that decision might mean. We’ll take situations on a case-by-case basis. It’s too early to know what bidding would be required, if any, and would depend on a number of factors.”

The state Public Land Corporation (PLC) is a unit of the Real Estate Division of the Department of Administration, according to state code 5A-10. The PLC holds title to public lands, except those specifically vested by law in other state agencies, institutions and departments.

The PLC may enter into lease or contract for the development of minerals, when it holds the rights, after receiving sealed bids. The minerals must be leased or contracted for development at not less than the fair market value, to the highest responsible bidder.

State code sections 20-1-7(14), 20-5-2(8) and 5A-11-6(d) block access to minerals under state-owned state parks, no matter who owns the rights. But state forests, wildlife management and public-access areas are not protected if the state doesn’t own the rights.

The Department of Administration was uncertain if WVU would fall under PLC rules, and referred the question to the Higher Education Policy Commission. HEPC said its attorney who would know the answer was not available.

Bolt said WVU hasn’t researched how to protect its interest where it doesn’t own the mineral rights. He expects it would have the same or similar rights as other state agencies. The DNR previously said it would have no power to stop drilling on land where it doesn’t own the rights.

WVU leases land in Coopers Rock State Forest. The DNR previously said it owns the rights there. The entire forest covers 12,713 acres, and the state’s oil and gas rights actually extend beyond its borders — 13,740 acres.

The original 1959 WVU forest lease included 7,956 acres plus a pond, some buildings and other property items. The 99-year lease has undergone some small modifications since.

Should the DNR choose to permit drilling on university forest land, the lease stipulates that the DNR must prevent operators from any developments “where they would damage or annul the value of research in progress or that planned to be started within a year in advance.”