Charleston, WV The West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization (WV-SORO) wants surface owners to know that they may be able to refuse horizontal gas wells on their land.

The group believes that a surface owner who does not own his or her minerals cannot be forced to have a horizontal well pad on their land unless the horizontal well will only be draining the mineral tract under the surface owner's land.

WV-SORO generally favors horizontal drilling because one well site, access road and pipeline replaces multiple well sites.

In fact, with horizontal wells drilled from centralized well pads, one well site, access road and pipeline can replace more than 20 vertical well sites.

However, these centralized well sites can disturb five acres or more of a surface owner's land.

Because the size and impact of these sites is significant, it is important that the rights of the surface owner be recognized and respected and that they share in the financial benefits of producing the gas.

"The key is knowing the boundaries of the tract of land on the date the ownership of the surface was severed from the ownership of minerals," said Dave McMahon, a cofounder and attorney who advises WV-SORO.

"Any of the surface land or tracts within the boundaries of the mineral tract at the time ownership was severed can be used by the driller to get to and develop those minerals.

However, the surface of the land cannot be used to get the minerals from a neighboring mineral tract. If a driller wants to drill a horizontal leg that goes beyond the boundaries of the tract at the time of the severance, then the driller has to have the permission of the surface owner.

If the driller does not get that permission, the driller has to stay inside the original boundaries.

WV-SORO views this as good news for surface owners because it means they can just say "no" to a horizontal well that goes beyond the original boundaries.

It is uncertain how much surface damages this will prevent if the driller decides to drill from that location anyhow, but it may be discouraging enough that the driller will go elsewhere.

Alternatively, it may give the surface owner a bargaining advantage when negotiating for compensation for use of their land.

McMahon acknowledged, however, that he has not heard from any surface owners who live on the land who thought they received adequate compensation for damage to their land and disruption of their lives.

Finally, surface owners may be able to use another argument that might keep a driller from using their land for a horizontal well site or maybe even a vertical Marcellus Shale well.

Because horizontal drilling and other techniques used in developing the Marcellus Shale require huge sites and impoundments, it is possible that the courts would rule that this type of well site was not "in the contemplation of the parties" at the time of the severance or the signing of the lease.

McMahon said, "The problem with using this theory to stop the driller is that the surface owner would have to bring a suit in Circuit Court."

WV-SORO has more information on this and other issues affecting surface owners available at its website, www.wvsoro.org.

Resources available at the website include the WV Surface Owners' Guide to Oil and Gas, a slide show on how a well is drilled and what can go wrong and information on surface owners' rights during geophysical (seismic) testing.

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