How many property or mineral rights owners must agree before drillers can sink a shaft to pump natural gas from a given area? West Virginia law currently says all of them. But the state House set out Wednesday to ease that burden.
The House advanced legislation to authorize drilling where 75 percent of owners of the royalty interests agree, rejecting an amendment to raise the threshold to 90 percent.
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, a Morgantown Democrat, said if lawmakers are going to permit taking private property rights they should raise the threshold. That would require drillers to find and get as many of the non-consenting joint owners to sign as possible, she said.
“We’re depriving persons of their property,” Fleischauer said. “We should have the highest burden possible.”
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A majority of owners now can’t exercise their rights to drill and 75 percent is a good balance, said Delegate Mark Zatezalo, a Weirton Republican. “If you want to talk about property rights infringement (it’s) eliminating the people’s right to get a royalty and a lot more money than they would otherwise.”
Zatezalo said if a property is bypassed it will never be developed. Fleischauer disagreed, saying the gas has been underground for millions of years and it will only get more valuable.
Her amendment was voted down 57-40.
Under current law, a single co-owner can block drilling on a property, though a gas company can sue to partition the property and proceed.
The bill says co-owners who oppose drilling can choose to get either a piece of the highest royalty, or a share in the gas producer’s revenues and costs.
The House then voted 50-47 to adopt an amendment to use half the unclaimed royalties to help fund health insurance for public employees including teachers. The money would go into a fund on behalf of co-owners who are unknown or can’t be located and become available after seven years.
In the original bill, all the unclaimed money would be used to cap and clean up some of the thousands of abandoned gas wells around the state that are considered environmental and safety hazards.
The final House floor vote is scheduled Thursday.
Teachers have held some walkouts and threatened others over low pay, possible hikes in their insurance costs and proposed raises that wouldn’t cover them. They want to see a state funding source identified that would offset future increases in health care costs.
The House Finance Committee on Wednesday advanced legislation to allocate $29 million to cover the cost of continuing workers’ current insurance terms for the next fiscal year, Chairman Eric Nelson said. The House on Tuesday approved a 2 percent pay hike next year for teachers, school service personnel and state troopers.