CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Delegates voted for a couple of changes to a bill dealing with the rights of land and mineral rights owners on natural gas drilling projects.
The bill that would require 75 percent of those with rights on a single tract to approve drilling is set for a passage vote Thursday in the House.
During a long floor session on Wednesday, delegates considered several proposed amendments and approved three of them.
The bill was already considered a challenging balancing act between the natural gas industry and land and mineral rights organizations.
PEIA in the mix
One of the successful amendments, offered by Delegate Phil Isner, D-Randolph, would take half of any unclaimed proceeds to an Unknown and Unlocatable Interest Owners Fund and transfer the money to the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
“This in no way will harm the purpose of the bill for people who think it’s a good idea. This will just provide some money to keep PEIA sustainable for the long run,” Isner said.
The money collected in that fund originally was to be transferred to the Oil and Gas Reclamation Fund to plug hundreds of abandoned and unplugged oil and gas wells around the state.
Any transfer would only take place after 7 years.
Republicans argued that the wells propose a hazard all over West Virginia.
“These are a blight on these counties,” said House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer. “This fund offers an opportunity to take care of this problem.”
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, argued that the state should already be making a priority of plugging the wells.
“We should already have been cleaning up abandoned wells,” Pushkin said. “I think it’s ironic that many members of this body have been converted to environmentalism today.”
The amendment was adopted, 49-47 with three not voting.
Another amendment, offered by Delegate Mike Folk, R-Berkeley, makes the bill applicable to situations in which more than 7 people are affected.
Folk said his amendment would make families more likely to sort out disagreements on their own.
Shott spoke up in favor of Folk’s proposal.
“I don’t think qualifying the bill by that threshold is going to cause great damage,” Shott said.
Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, also spoke in favor of it: “I see that it does little or no harm to the bill.”
The amendment was passed 90-6.
Later renegotiation possibility
Delegate Rolland Jennings, R-Preston, offered an amendment that says nonconsenting or unlocatable co-owners retain their rights to negotiate if there are future drilling projects on the same property for a different shale formation.
Shott again spoke in favor.
“There is the possibility that 75 percent or more don’t make a very good deal,” Shott said. “This is an additional protection who would get the benefit of the best deal — but if the best deal is not a good deal will provide greater protections.”
Jennings’ amendment was adopted 90-5.
No to a 90 percent threshold
The longest and most contentious debate was over an amendment offered by delegates Barbara Fleischauer and Dave Pethtel that would have required at least 90 percent of rights owners to approve drilling.
“If we’re going to compromise private property rights, we should have the highest burden possible,” said Fleischauer, D-Monongalia.
“I think every attempt should be made to strike a balance. I think a 90 percent balance is more fair.”
Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, argued that the bill already strikes a balance by requiring 75 percent to approve.
“If the 75 percent that want the lease — are their property rights sacred as well?” Zatezalo asked.
“I agree we need to strike a balance, and that’s exactly what the committee has done with the 75 percent.”
Delegate Pat McGeehan, also a Republican from Hancock County, expressed support for the amendment.
“There are some good old-fashioned ideas this country was founded on — life, liberty and private property,” McGeehan said.
Shott made a broader argument, saying increased natural gas development will spur the state’s economy and provide greater revenue to the state.
“The public interest is also an interest we need to take into the equation. We’ve been talking about money we need to do a lot of things in our state. We have a plethora of needs in this state. This industry offers potential solution to do a lot of what we need done,” Shott said.
“We need to keep in mind, what are we going to do to enhance this resource for all our people while at the same time protecting to the extent we can those who are directly impacted. Is it fair for me to deny those people the ability to use and benefit from their ownership?”
The amendment that would have established a 90 percent threshold was defeated 40-57.