Sustained Outrage

Gas drilling damage II

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Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo courtesy West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization.

We’ve had a couple of blog posts and a story in the Gazette about the problems caused by the U.S. Forest Service’s failure to properly police an oil and gas operation in the Monongahela National Forest (See here, here and here).

One of the blog posts, Gas drilling damage I,  took a closer look at what happened in the Mon Forest’s Fernow Experimental Forest, a research station near Parsons in Tucker County. Last week, through its Greenwire service, The New York Times had a piece about growing concerns about drilling on public lands, and what the Forest Service is — and isn’t — doing about it.

But there have been two growing types of concerns in West Virginia and around the region about the oil and gas business.

One surrounds the boom in drilling in the Marcellus Shale gas formation, and what happens to the huge amounts of toxic waste water produced by these wells.  This issue really came to the forefront last year, when some of this nasty stuff that was taken to small community sewage treatment plants made its way into the Monongehala River.

Don Hopey at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported on this here, here and here, as has Pam Casey, the excellent energy reporter for The State Journal, here.  There’s a whole collection of stories and other information about this issue here, and Cindy Rank outlined the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy’s view on it here. Scott Rotruck of Chesapeake Energy provided an industry perspective at Gov. Joe Manchin’s Energy Summit back in December. It’s posted here, but warning, it’s a big PowerPoint file that the West Virginia Development Office wasn’t kind enough to convert to a nice, small .pdf.

There’s some indication that the Marcellus boom may be dipping off, so it’s not clear how big of an issue this will remain. But folks who want to follow it should check out the very useful ShaleBlog.

The other issue is one of those old ones that never seems to go away, but that is getting hotter all the time.

That’s the efforts of surface landowners in West Virginia who don’t also hold title to their mineral rights to get more rights in dealing with drillers that come onto their property.

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This is a drilling rig and other equipment being pulled to the next drill site by a bulldozer because the access road is in such bad shape that the drilling rig and truck cannot get there on their own.  It is common practice for bulldozers to pull rigs and trucks in this fashion due to road conditions.  These road conditions would clearly violate State regulations after drilling is done.  They may or may not violated current state regulations during drilling!  A suit could be brought that this driller is exceeding his common law rights to do only what is fairly necessary to the surface in order to produce the minerals. Photo courtesy West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization.

Last month, when I did a story on the Surface Owners Bill of Rights legislation,  I got some complaints from industry folks and Dave Yaussy at the West Virginia Environmental Law Blog took up for the drillers:

In my experience the oil and gas companies have worked hard with landowners to avoid disputes over surface usage, and have accommodated landowners where possible. It’s not to their benefit to get into a fight with landowners, and they generally work things out. In addition, there is the Oil and Gas Production Damage Compensation Act, W. Va. Code 22-7-1 et seq. that allows landowners to receive money for damages suffered as a result of drilling activity.

But Dave McMahon and the other folks at the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization have plenty of horror stories, and the Gazette receives plenty of calls from West Virginians who feel they weren’t treated fairly by the industry.

The organization’s bill has been introduced in the Senate (S374) and in the House (HB3023), where it has the maximum number of 11 sponsors.

McMahon told me this week:

We are encouraged by the fact that we have the maximum number of
sponsors, and every legislator we talk to seems supportive.  They
understand that nothing in our bill will stop wells from being drilled,
just encourage drillers to recognize the existing rights of surface
owners, and  more fairly compensate surface owners for what is about to
happen to their land.

The Surface Owners’ group’s website has lots of other helpful information, especially McMahon’s Surface Owners’ Guide to Oil and Gas, as well as a way to education legislators about the issue.