MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A federal judge has asked the West Virginia Supreme Court to rule conclusively if state law allows a gas drilling company to use a Marion County farmer's land to sink horizontal wells that would draw gas from neighboring tracts.
The 2011 case that Richard Cain originally filed in Marion County Circuit Court "could have far-reaching legal and economic implications for the state of West Virginia," U.S. District Judge Irene Keeley wrote in a recent ruling. "Such important and unsettled issues of state law should . . . be decided by West Virginia's highest court."
Cain said Exxon Mobil subsidiary XTO Energy plans to use the best of his land for as many as 18 well pads, leaving him with mostly steep, unusable hillsides.
Cain conceded that he doesn't own the rights to oil, gas and minerals under his 105 acres, but he argued that a 1907 deed at the center of his lawsuit never envisioned such extensive surface disruption.
XTO has denied doing anything illegal and said it paid $63,000 for a pipeline right-of-way easement to transport oil, gas, water and other substances across Cain's property.
XTO called its plan to use 36 acres of Cain's land "reasonably necessary" for exercising its rights.
That, Keeley said, is the heart of the dispute.
Both sides have cited situations that are "arguably analogous" to the one at hand, Keeley said, but neither has identified a "clear controlling West Virginia precedent to guide the court's decision."