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Doddridge case called a boost for surface owners in Marcellus gas region

Courtesy photo
The natural gas well pad, shown during the construction phase, was the subject of the lawsuit in Doddridge County.

Two Doddridge County residents have won a court ruling and a jury verdict that advocates for surface owners’ rights say provide a boost in the ongoing struggle over the impacts of the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom in Northern West Virginia.

Last week, a circuit court jury awarded Beth Crowder and David Wentz a total of $190,000 in damages in a case brought against EQT Production Company over a well pad that EQT constructed on the residents’ property — without their permission — in order to drill horizontally underground to reach natural gas supplies located beneath neighboring properties.

David Grubb, a Charleston lawyer who represented Crowder and Wentz, said it is believed to be the first verdict in which plaintiffs were awarded “fair and reasonable rental value” in a such a case against a natural gas producer.

“This is a victory for surface landowners,” Grubb said Friday. “It represents a recognition that drillers cannot use a surface landowner’s property to drill horizontally into neighboring tracts without express permission.”

Jurors determined that the residents deserved $95,000 for the rental value of the property and another $95,000 for “annoyance and inconvenience.” The jury declined to award any punitive damages to punish EQT for its behavior.

In the case, Crowder and Wentz were arguing that EQT had trespassed on their property when it built the 20-acre well pad to drill nine horizontal wells, a process that took 16 months and contemplated another three wells would eventually be drilled.

Doddridge Circuit Judge Timothy Sweeney had previously ruled for the residents, saying in a February 2016 order that EQT’s right to do what was “reasonably necessary” to produce gas it owns or leases, that right did not include the authority to drill from the Crowder-Wentz property into mineral tracts that do not underlie that property.

“While EQT clearly has the right to do what is necessary to plaintiffs’ surface land in order to drill well bores into the underlying oil and gas reservation to produce gas from its acreage, it does not have the legal right (absent consent) to drill from plaintiffs’ surface lands horizontally into neighboring mineral tracts,” Sweeney wrote.

The West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization has praised Sweeney’s decision, but also indicated it would be more comfortable if and when a similar legal ruling is spelled out by the state Supreme Court.

“So you are now more likely to win a case to block a well pad on your land, and it certainly strengthens your bargaining position if you want to negotiate with the driller,” the group told surface owners on its website. “This is as good as it gets until the West Virginia Supreme Court makes a decision on this issue that would be binding on all circuit court judges.”

The issue is one of many legal controversies that continue to be debated as the boom in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region has companies rushing to put together large tracts of minerals they say are needed to make large-scale drilling economical, and as residents push back over the on-the-ground impacts that the industry is having on their daily lives. The issues are complicated by the complex ownership patterns in which many surface owners don’t also hold the minerals under their homes, and because of split ownership of both surface and mineral tracts that has occurred over the decades.

Industry technology has fueled an economic boom in the Marcellus Shale gas fields of West Virginia’s northern counties, but it has also has created problems for surface owners who worry about damage to their homeplaces and peaceful rural lifestyle. The drilling boom also has generated conflicts between gas companies and mineral owners over how the wealth created is being divided.

Earlier this year, those kinds of issues brought another push by the gas industry for a “forced pooling” bill at the Legislature, but the measure died in the House when supporters were unable to build a consensus of support for the legislation among either Republicans or Democrats. The issue will undoubtedly surface again in next year’s session, and was among the topics last month during the initial meeting of a new Joint Committee on Natural Gas Development set up by legislative leaders.

In the Doddridge County case, the plaintiffs had sought between $500,000 and $2.1 million from EQT, arguing for rental value that amounted to a relatively percentage of the projected revenues for the wells on the pad.

EQT argued that those amounts were excessive and a company spokeswoman said EQT “respects that the jury factored in EQT’s position with its decision and is pleased with the outcome.”

“We are concerned that EQT will appeal the judge’s underlying ruling on trespass to the Supreme Court in order to continue to abuse the property rights of surface owners,” said David McMahon, another of the lawyers for Crowder and Wentz and a founder of the Surface Owners’ Rights Organization.

The EQT spokeswoman, Linda Robertson, did not immediately say whether the company planned to appeal any of Sweeney’s decisions in the case.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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