Surface Owners' Rights Legislation In House, Senate

By Tom Searls
Staff Writer

A private forester warned Wednesday that gas and oil equipment being brought into the state from Pennsylvania is spreading a foreign weed down the "entire I-79 corridor," and said it threatens West Virginia's timber industry.

"Just about every [gas or oil] well site in Lewis County has garlic mustard," Russ Richardson, an Arnoldsburg forester, said at a Capitol press conference to support a surface owners' bill of rights introduced as legislation (HB2773) (SB135).

Richardson said garlic mustard weed is transported into the state on dirty gas and oil equipment. "There are no standards for the hygiene of the equipment," he said.

The weed, along with the well sites and a cutting method called "daylighting," cause "fragmentation" of the forests, which then leads to its destruction, said Richardson, a consulting forester who sets up forestland management sites for landowners in the state.

"It is fragmentation on steroids," Richardson said.

He has become involved in surface owners' rights by evaluating the timber destroyed by oil and gas firms when they cut roads to drilling sites. In a number of instances, he said, the timber was valued in the thousands and the companies made offers of only around $500.

"It's the most damage to the Appalachian forest" since the chestnut tree blight, he warned.

The current natural gas boom in West Virginia is expected to continue to expand, but many landowners are up in arms after finding drillers on their property who pretty much have a free hand to bulldoze where they want to get to new well sites.

The argument comes down to surface landowners and mineral landowners. With a new natural gas boom hitting West Virginia, those sometimes-conflicting "rights" have caused problems between the two.

"We're not opposed to natural gas and oil development in West Virginia," said Gary Zuckett, a surface rights organizer.

However, he noted there remains the "ugly underbelly of the oil and gas boom in West Virginia today."

Following the Tawney case in Roane County - where a jury ruled the oil and gas producers had been short-changing surface owners for decades, and awarded millions of dollars in damages - both the industry and surface owners became more concerned.

The surface owners legislation would, among other things, require a minimum of 60 days notice before any drilling or planning on the property, require surface owners' permission before cutting the trees away for "daylighting" of roads, and give surface owners the right to a hearing on the permits.

It would also require the driller to provide an individual well bond, provide surface owners with copies of statutes protecting and compensating them, require soil and erosion plans in advance, allowing the state to deny drilling permits to those that violate regulations and laws, allow landowners to purchase natural gas at below market prices and provide property tax relief for surface owners who no longer can use their land.

"The problem is the driller has all the advantages," said Dave McMahon, a lawyer representing the surface owners group.

He noted drillers surprise landowners by showing up without real notice.

That happened to Nancy Powers and her Harrison County family decades ago. The family believed it had reached agreement with the firm on the one well it wanted to drill.

"We currently have eight oil wells on our property," she said.


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