Bill to shield industry from lawsuits in WV appears dead

AP file
A crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale based natural gas in Zelienople, Pa., in 2015.

A bill that would shield natural gas drillers and other industries from certain types of lawsuits faces an uphill struggle for passage before the end of this year's legislative session, West Virginia lawmakers and lobbyists say.

Corky Demarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said the bill is not on any agenda in the House of Delegates and he isn't confident that it will come up for a vote during the last week of the session.

The bill passed the Senate last month, but it has stalled in the House, which DeMarco thinks is the result of uninformed policymakers and members of the public. There are a lot of uninformed people in the state, he said, who are quick to pass judgment.

“West Virginia is its own worst enemy,” he said, “but that is my opinion, and I work in the industry.”

The bill (SB 508) would give gas drillers — and potentially a wide variety of industrial and other activities — immunity from “nuisance lawsuits,” in which citizens allege that activity by someone else is unlawfully interfering with their use and enjoyment of their property. The bill was approved by the Senate and is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

On Friday, House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said complicated issues raised by the bill make it unlikely that the House will take up the matter before the end of the session on Saturday.

“We're looking at whether there's any revisions that could be made to it that would make it more palatable, but I think, in the format that it came [in] from the Senate, there's a very big concern about it,” Armstead said Monday.

The speaker said House leaders are “just making sure that we're balancing the rights of property owners . . . a number of people on our side felt like it went too far and that, if we run something, we want to make sure its respectful of property owners' rights.”

On Friday, Armstead told the MetroNews radio show “Talkline,” “When you're talking about people's private property rights, that's a very important right. A person wants to be able to live in their own home and on their own property and be able to do so without any kind of a nuisance and be kept up in the night and have bright lights shined on their property.”

The bill's death would mark another defeat for the state's oil and gas industry in this year's session.

Earlier, lawmakers voted down an industry-backed bill (SB 596) that would have allowed gas company surveyors onto private property without permission. Also, opposition from West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman appears to have killed a bill (SB 565) that would have allowed gas drillers to build access roads and drilling pads before they obtained DEP drilling permits.

On Monday, the state Business and Industry Council, a coalition of trade associations, continued to encourage its members to ask House leaders to move the nuisance lawsuit bill forward “so that all businesses that create jobs and grow West Virginia's economy” will “have protection from frivolous litigation that they need to continue investing in our state.”

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report.

Reach Andrew Brown at andrew.brown@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.

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