A controversial oil and gas bill now includes an amendment to put money toward the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
House Bill 4268, known as the co-tenancy bill, would allow natural gas and oil companies to drill with the majority, or 75 percent, of the land owners’ consent. Fifty percent of unknown owners’ interest on the minerals would now go toward a PEIA Stability Fund, instead of entirely to the Oil and Gas Reclamation Fund, says an amendment introduced by Delegate Phil Isner, D-Randolph. The money will be kept in the Unknown and Unlocatable Interest Owners Fund before it’s transferred.
The amendment passed with 49 votes for, and 47 votes against it.
“This is not picking between one and another,” Isner said Wednesday afternoon. “This is doing two things at once.”
There’s no way to predict how much money will ultimately come from interest from owners who can’t be found, and the money won’t be freed up until 2023, said Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, the last stop before the bill went to the House floor. He voted against the amendment.
“I applaud the gentlemen for his creativity, but we have a responsibility to deal with these hazards,” said Delegate Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, who voted against the amendment.
Plus, he said, that money would be a better fit for the Oil and Gas Reclamation Fund, which would use the money to plug thousands of orphan wells around the state. Right now, the fund gets money from drilling permit fees.
“We have to say we’re pretty disappointed that they took some of the orphan-well money away, because there’s about 4,000 orphan wells right now, and it’s going to get worse,” said Dave McMahon, founder of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.
But, he said, surface owners would still support the bill as long as it didn’t weaken surface owner provisions.
The House also passed an amendment, introduced by Delegate Mike Folk, R-Berkeley, to make the bill applicable in situations in which more than seven people are affected. Another amendment by Delegate Rolland Jennings, R-Preston, offered increased rights for tenants who either don’t consent to drilling or can’t be located.
“We feel the Jennings amendment actually improves the bill,” said Tom Huber, president of the West Virginia Royalty Owner’s Association. “However, we were supportive of the bill as it came to the floor, and we still support the bill. We’re somewhat confused by creating the seven-person threshold. There’s not always a family situation involved.”
The bill will be voted on in the House on Thursday.
Also Wednesday, the House Finance Committee initiated a bill to transfer $29 million from the state’s Rainy Day funds to PEIA.