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Landowners Hit by Marcellus are Pushing Lawmakers

July 21, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The West Virginia legislature is continuing work on a bill to regulate Marcellus shale natural-gas drilling, pushed by complaints from landowners that the process is slanted against them.

The House of Delegates has scheduled public hearings through next week. Previous events have been filled by landowners asking lawmakers to write rules that better protect property rights.

Richard Cain bought 105 acres in Marion County, intending to hunt there and then leave the tract to his sons. He says he could do little to stop a drilling company plan that could eventually take up more than a third of the land, tying it up for decades.

"It's pretty well destroyed right now. I said, 'Yeah you're gonna take the best of the property.' The guy kind of smiled, and he said, 'We'll leave you a little bit.' "

None of the drillers or energy companies returned calls requesting comment. Current law says the firms can do what is "fairly necessary" to the land if they control the mineral rights - but landowners contend that the companies do as they please.

Some landowners complain they have no voice in where any kind of natural-gas production work happens, and only find out late in the process.

Roberta Fowlkes objected to where a planned pipeline would cross a Putnam County farm that had been in her family for generations. Because nobody currently lives there, they didn't even realize the company had ignored their wishes.

"We felt they were going to come back to us to discuss it. They did not. They continued with their plans, and we found out just when we went out there a few months later that they had already installed everything."

The driller determines what compensation to offer the landowner. If the landowner controls the mineral rights, he or she can negotiate better terms. But if not, or if the drilling is to reach gas under a neighboring property, the landowner has few options other than going to court.

That's what Richard Cain is doing.

"In this case, it was ridge line. For somebody else, it could be hay fields. It could be your best part of your farm. That's not right."

In general, the industry has said it could accept what it calls reasonable rules as long as they provide predictable regulations that won't strangle growth.

Hearings are scheduled tonight in Wheeling, Monday in Morgantown and Wednesday in Clarksburg.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV