Shale Gas Development Involves Many Lawyers and Legal Questions

by Duane Nichols on April 15, 2011

A rapid expansion is underway in Pennsylvania and West Virginia to tap into vast amounts of natural gas lying deep beneath the earth’s surface.  Companies have invested billions and are increasing the number of wells rapidly. With the increase in drilling comes an increase in legal activity, from attorneys who help landowners with leasing issues to lawyers involved in disputes over roads and noise to those drafting industry rules and regulations.

Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, says the industry welcomes the scrutiny.  ”I challenge you to name another industry this transparent,” she said. “Have you ever seen any industry that has more easy access to information?” Klaber’s organization represents nearly 40 drillers and many other related businesses, many of which are facing legislative hurdles.  New York has issued a temporary moratorium on new drilling permits, and many in West Virginia are calling for legislative action to protect the public and the environment.

More than a dozen law firms have joined the Marcellus Shale Coalition, as partners in the oil and gas industry.  Several firms have designated teams of attorneys who work solely on Marcellus Shale issues and litigation. Industry lawyers say their clients are stepping up to the plate when it comes to issues such as noise, road damage and site restoration.  

Plaintiff attorney Michael Rosenzweig in Pittsburgh says there are a number of cases right now against local municipalities and the states for damage to the roads. “The state is just left holding the bag when these drillers come in and put all this heavy traffic on these roads,” he said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.” Industry lawyers say many companies are making repairs themselves, particularly to landscaping on property once they are finished with a well. Many municipalities are considering charging drillers impact fees to make necessary repairs.

You probably can refuse a horizontal well on your land.  The West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization (WV-SORO) believes that a surface owner who does not own the gas rights under their land cannot be forced to have a horizontal well pad on the surface  unless the horizontal well will only be draining the gas lease tract under the surface owner’s land.  Generally, lawyers who work for the industry agree with this (although the companies and local landman may not realize it yet).  Although there are no cases on this in West Virginia, legal encyclopedia’s of gas law say that this is “clearly” true and that the reason that there are no appellate court cases on the point is that such “veto powers” are generally assumed.

WV-SORO generally favors horizontal drilling because one well site, access road and pipeline replaces three or four.  Moreover, if horizontal wells are drilled from centralized well pads, one well site, access road and pipeline can replace more than 20 vertical well sites, etc.  However, this does not mean the rights of the surface owner of the land where the wells are being drilled should be ignored or that the surface owner should not share in the financial benefits of producing the gas.

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