Last updated: July 18. 2013 1:46PM - 304 Views
Martha Sparks
Society Editor

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Most gas companies try to work with the owners of land on which they set up rigs to drill for natural gas and oil. They avoid disturbing the surface when possible and often try to compensate landowners for damage.

But drillers’ responsibilities in that regard can be very limited. If a landowner does not also hold title to the rights for minerals under his property, his leverage with gas and oil companies can be restricted severely.

West Virginia Supreme Court justices recently ruled against a landowner who had objected to a company’s plan to drill on his Doddridge County property. Concerned about damage to his land, he had asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to require the drilling company to alter its plan.

When the DEP approved the initial drilling plan, the landowner went to court.

Supreme Court justices ruled against the landowner, noting state law does not give those who own only surface rights to land the right to appeal drilling permits.

But in her written opinion on the matter, Justice Margaret Workman, backed by a unanimous court, urged the state Legislature to take another look at surface owners’ rights. Lawmakers should “consider whether surface owners should be afforded an administrative appeal” of such DEP decisions, Workman recommended.

She is right — though it needs to be emphasized altering the law at this stage of the gas drilling game could be difficult. Many mineral rights owners already have signed leases with drilling companies, which paid fees and agreed to royalty rates based on the cost of complying with existing law. Changing the rules now would be unfair, and possibly unconstitutional.

Still, Workman is right. Lawmakers should reconsider the rights of landowners who do not also own mineral rights for their property. Obviously, they will have to exercise great care in making any changes, however.

Distributed by The Associated Press

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