WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — EQT is turning over a new leaf, the Pittsburgh-based drilling company’s CEO said Wednesday.
“We’re really talking about our values,” said Toby Rice, who took over this summer as CEO of West Virginia’s second-largest gas producer.
Under his leadership, the company has launched a series of town halls across the state, vowing to have a better relationship with the landowners affected by the company’s drilling operations.
Rice echoed this to a ballroom filled with some of the state’s most powerful lobbyists, lawyers and legislators Wednesday at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 83rd annual business summit, held at The Greenbrier resort.
Speaking on a panel called “Natural Gas and West Virginia’s Future,” with Clay Carrell, the executive vice president and COO of Southwestern Energy, Rice vowed a “greener, friendlier approach” toward drilling.
Some of his top priorities: “Old-school values,” like trust, passion and a commitment to doing the right thing. He also vowed to minimize the effects of drilling, like wearing down roads. By planning in advance and working on multiple projects at once, he said, some of that wear and tear could be minimized.
He also pushed the idea of working on large-scale projects — multiple wells on one frack pad with long laterals that allow a company to extract natural gas from tracts of land, sometimes, miles away.
The approach is generally favored by the oil and gas industry, because it mitigates environmental effects by building a single well pad for multiple wells. Also, earlier this year, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that EQT had trespassed on a Wetzel County farm to drill for gas underneath neighboring properties.
In that case, EQT had a lease that allowed the company to the gas directly beneath the Wetzel County farm, but it also wanted to use a new, 20-acre well pad to gather gas from 3,000 acres of adjacent or nearby leases. EQT ignored the landowners’ warning and came onto the farm anyway.
The company built roads, drilled a well and put in horizontal pipes that stretched for miles. In June, the Supreme Court issued a straightforward and unanimous decision that said EQT had been trespassing.
EQT also must pay $53.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that said the company had withheld royalty payments owed to about 9,500 residents and businesses in West Virginia. This summer, U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey approved the settlement.
The lawsuit was among many that said natural gas companies were unfairly deducting expenses from royalty checks, or shortchanging residents on payments by forming shell companies to buy gas at reduced rates. Rice said he wanted to make leases more modern, and make it easier for interested mineral owners to lease.
As natural gas booms around the Marcellus Shale, residents who live nearby have continued to live with constant light, truck traffic, dust and noise from gas production fueled by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Although lawmakers have introduced legislation each year to lessen those effects, the bills have never made it onto a committee agenda.
Rice said it is still too soon to say what kind of legislation EQT would favor but wants to “accomplish a lot privately” and “be less dependent on legislation.”
He acknowledged that some people still might be unhappy with the effects of drilling.
“There’s going to be people who are, maybe, upset with some of the operations that we do, and that’s why an important part of this is communicating with these people, letting them know what we’re doing,” Rice said later.
But asked how he’d handle the issues raised in the lawsuits, such as trespassing and royalty payments, Rice said he wasn’t entirely sure.
“If I’m being honest,” he said, “I haven’t really dug in too much to be able to comment on that.”