CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Ahead of a hearing next week by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, property rights advocates held meetings across the state to inform people about the importance of property rights and royalties from mineral and gas companies.
The state Supreme Court is scheduled to rehear Leggett v. EQT on Tuesday. In November, the court ruled in favor of landowners after EQT Corporation, a Pittsburgh-based petroleum and natural gas company, took deductions from royalty payments intended for the property owners.
The court ruled 3-2 with then-Chief Justice Menis Ketchum and Justice Allen Loughry dissenting. Justice Brent Benjamin, who wrote the majority opinion, was defeated in his May 2016 re-election by Beth Walker, who now sits on the court. The court selected Loughry in December as the next chief justice.
Advocates held events in Wheeling, Bridgeport and Charleston to inform the public about the possible effects of a reversed ruling.
Tom Huber, vice president of the West Virginia Royalty Owners Association, said Thursday in Charleston the issue is a significant concern in northern West Virginia.
“There’s the drilling and they’re dealing with people who are coming and taking leases,” he said. “Obviously, these issues will affect the southern part of the state, but they are not affecting it right now.”
The Marcellus and Utica shales range from West Virginia to southern New York and includes parts of eastern Ohio. According to the plaintiffs, EQT deducted as much as 30 percent from landowners’ royalty payments to cover post-production expenses such as transportation and processing.
Huber said EQT is not abiding by state law because it is passing costs onto land owners.
“If the case goes the gas companies way, that’s millions and millions of dollars a year not paid to West Virginians, but go directly to gas companies’ headquarters in Oklahoma City and Pennsylvania,” he said.
Huber said one point of the meetings was to prepare people in case a different ruling is made.
“In case the court case goes the opposite way that it did in the fall, we’d like the Legislature to fix the problem and pass legislation to put things back to the way things have been in the past,” he said. “Where gas companies don’t get to take deductions unless they get you to agree to them.”
The state Senate passed Senate Bill 576 that would have allowed gas companies to proceed with development on land if agreed upon by 75 percent of the property’s owner, and prevented holders of old leases from negotiation the terms of the charters.
According to Dwayne O’Dell, government affairs director of the West Virginia Farm Bureau, some of the leases were signed as early as the late 1800s.
O’Dell spoke at the meeting about the importance of protecting surface land rights.
The Senate passed the legislation 19-14. The bill was sent to the House of Delegates Energy Committee, where it did not advance before the end of the 60-day regular session.
Arguments in the case are scheduled to begin Tuesday at 10 a.m.