CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Frustrated with state lawmakers' failure to approve regulations on Marcellus Shale development, the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization says it plans to shift its focus from the Statehouse to the courthouse.
Legislators are coming to Charleston this week for their interim monthly meetings. Part of the schedule will include the first two meetings of a new committee focused on Marcellus issues. Dave McMahon of the surface owners group said his organization wants to participate in the discussion, but he isn't hopeful.
"Four years at the Legislature has taught us not to expect much," said McMahon, a lawyer. "So we are going to turn to the courts."
Since 2008, McMahon's group has unsuccessfully pushed lawmakers to pass a surface owners' bill of rights. Earlier this year, the Legislature failed to work out new regulations for Marcellus drilling. The Senate approved a measure (SB424), but the House -- which backs stronger protections for the environment and surface owners -- never voted on the bill.
Now, with Marcellus development growing, McMahon says, it's time for his group to broaden its tactics.
McMahon already has filed one lawsuit on behalf of a Marion County man who says two companies don't have a right to put wells on his property to get to the gas on a neighbor's land.
Another possible lawsuit would seek to give surface owners the right to a hearing on well permit applications, McMahon said.
A third potential lawsuit would focus on abandoned wells. There are 5,000 in West Virginia, said McMahon, who contends that the state should not issue new permits until it plugs those wells.
In both cases, the state Department of Environmental Protection would be the likely defendant.
The surface owners group might work with nonprofit law firms and environmental groups to file the lawsuits, McMahon said.
He said some lawmakers have been open to listening to the concerns of surface owners, but in general, citizens have a hard time getting heard.
"The usual lobbyist ratio, if you combine surface owners and environmental people, [compared] to corporate lobbyists, is 17 to 3," he said. "And if you count donations to campaigns, who knows?"
Legislative leaders formed the new Marcellus committee to work out a compromise between the House of Delegates and state Senate, with hopes of drafting a bill that could be approved during a special session later this summer or fall.
McMahon said he also is worried because the co-chairman of the Marcellus committee is Sen. Doug Facemire, whom he calls the Senate's biggest advocate of the gas industry.
Facemire calls himself "an advocate for economic development."