CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After a long debate about property rights, the House of Delegates passed a bill dealing with the rights of land and mineral rights owners on natural gas drilling projects.
The co-tenancy bill, as it’s called, would require at least 75 percent of owners on a single tract of property to sign off on drilling. Holdouts or those who can’t be located would still have some rights under the bill.
The bill is meant to deal with situations in which property has been divided many times over generations.
“We’re talking about solving the problem of being able to obtain a lease on a single parcel of land that may be owned by dozens and dozens of people,” said Delegate William Anderson, R-Wood, chairman of the House Energy Committee.
The bill passed the House, 60-40. It now goes to the Senate.
“I think we’re going to get through. I think the governor’s going to sign the bill. I think we’ll reform the law in a very fair and equitable way to all parties involved,” said Tom Huber, president of the West Virginia Royalty Owners Association.
“I think we’ll see some relief from some of the bad practices of industry that are currently being practiced in the gas field.”
Anne Blankenship, director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, also said she was pleased by the House’s passage of the bill.
“We’re excited now that it’s going to go over to the Senate side,” Blankenship said. “Hopefully it will keep that delicate balance in play. We don’t want it to go either way off the deep end and upset that balance that we have now as we move forward.
“It’s not a perfect bill, but we’re pleased that it passed through the House side and hopefully now we can keep the momentum going on the Senate side.”
Work has been done to cobble the bill together since before the legislative session even started, as Gov. Jim Justice gathered those on various sides of the issue to try to find some common ground.
Bills dealing with natural gas drilling and property rights have fallen apart many times over the years, either failing to balance the rights of the various players or being weighed down by a variety of inter-related issues.
The co-tenancy bill is meant to deal with situations in which the majority of owners of a property want to consent to natural gas drilling but others do not or can’t be located.
The current bill says 75 percent of rights owners would have to give their consent for drilling.
Non-consentors would have two options. They could receive a production royalty equal to the highest percentage royalty paid to one of the consenting parties. Or, they could opt to share in revenue and cost of development — essentially winding up as a participant.
Debate over property rights dominated the discussion in the House.
Democrats said the bill would trample the rights of minority owners who don’t want drilling on their property.
“I truly believe this is a flat out assault on people’s property rights in the state of West Virginia,” said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton.
He added, “It’s attempting to legislate how the owner of certain mineral rights or certain property — how they must use that property.”
Most Republicans said the legislation protects the rights of those who want to benefit economically from their land or mineral rights.
Without the co-tenancy provisions, they said, property owners who want to allow development could be held up by a small minority.
“My question to you is, who is protecting the rights of ‘our people’ that are in that at least 75 percent? Don’t they have property rights too?” asked House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer.
“We have an opportunity to set up a system that protects all of those people.”