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Experts Brief Property Owners on Marcellus Shale Land Use

Landowner and Pennsylvania Environmental Council official, speaking at Moon Township forum, say property owners should band together when considering leasing land to drilling companies.

Marian Schweighofer said it started for her on an evening four years ago, when a group of her fellow farmers in Wayne County gathered around a kitchen table.

The group met to discuss the increasing number of offers each of them was fielding from natural gas drilling companies seeking to lease large tracts of eastern Pennsylvania farmland to drill for Marcellus Shale gas.

The neighbors collectively owned 10,000 acres of land.

“We needed to find a way to pull our community together,” Schweighofer told a small audience of property owners Saturday at . “We needed to be proactive now rather than reactive later.

“Please realize that every part of the lease is negotiable,” she said.

Schweighofer and a group of industry experts talked to Pittsburgh-area property owners about drawing up leases with drilling companies, hydrofracturing practices, and air and water quality.

The event, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Western Pennsylvania, briefed property owners on what they may expect should a drilling company request to use their land. 

Schweighofer’s neighborhood group eventually grew to include more than 1,800 property owners who call themselves the North Wayne Property Owners Alliance. The group, which controls more than 100,000 acres of Wayne County land, banded together to negotiate leasing and water quality-control terms for drilling companies and subcontractors.

Davitt Woodwell, executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, said Schweighofer’s coalition is one others in Pennsylvania should emulate.

“The industry is very different than it was three years ago,” Woodwell said. “Get an attorney who has experience doing these leases. Don’t do it yourself.”

Moon Township officials are in the process of adding Marcellus Shale drilling regulations to the township’s oil- and gas-drilling ordinance.

No one has applied for a permit to drill for Marcellus Shale gas in the township, Moon Manager Jeanne Creese said, although township officials believe drilling companies have leased at least three tracts of land in Moon.

"There is some inevitability to this process," said panelist William Danchuk, a land use attorney. "But we can make changes to our lives and behavior to make it work." 

Get an attorney           

Danchuk said any property owner considering leasing land to a drilling company should first consult an attorney with expertise in land use.

“Everyone who I know who has signer’s regret did not get an attorney,” Danchuk said. “Every day there is another change, every day there is another nuance in the industry.”

Danchuck said leasing specifications may include provisions covering wildlife protection, noise control or a ban on surface-drilling activity. 

Property owners also should be more mindful of collecting royalties over the course of the land use rather than money earned upfront from the lease, he said.

“A lot of property owners are looking for front-end money,” he said. “Negate the front-end money — it’s a wash.”

Insist on testing water          

Woodwell said property owners should request that companies test ground water near the property over the course of the lease.

He also said property owners should also include a clause in their leases that pertains to recreational use. Owners should make sure to prohibit drilling company personnel and contractors from hunting, fishing, swimming and camping on their property, he said.

They also should negotiate what infrastructure will be placed on their land, including storage facilities, surface roads and pipelines, Woodwell said.

Work alongside neighbors

Panelists said property owners who own sprawling tracts of land would have most control in the negotiating process.

Officials in Moon have said the township's level of development and population density may discourage drilling companies from targeting the area aggressively. 

“We thought if we could hold the properties together we would be in a better place to negotiate,” Schweighofer said.

Schweighofer owns more than 700 acres of farmland, but she said suburban neighbors with smaller land plots can work alongside one another in the leasing process. 

“[Companies will] come in, and say 'All your neighbors are doing this,' ” Woodwell said. “ 'This is what they’ve all signed, so you need to do this.' That’s not always the case.

“People getting together have leverage,” he added.  “If you go in as a group, you’ve got a much better opportunity to get the best terms in your lease going forward.” 

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