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Pooling prey

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Legislation allowing drilling companies to pool landowners' parcels into gas-drilling units, passed amid the last-minute state-budget rush, wrongly puts expediency for drillers ahead of private-property rights, which it violates.

The legislation requires that all pooled parcels already be leased for drilling. Proponents say that means it won't force drilling where landowners don't want it. But that's a simplistic view, because this legislation will leave many landowners at a distinct disadvantage when a driller wants to pool their parcels.

They're landowners who signed drilling leases years ago, when few such contracts, if any, addressed pooling — and long before modern techniques such as fracking enabled the rise of the Marcellus shale drilling industry. The legislation lets drillers pool land so long as parcels' lease contracts don't specifically prohibit it.

That deprives landowners of leverage they ought to have. Instead of renegotiating old lease contracts to obtain larger payments or other benefits in exchange for allowing pooling, they will be at drillers' mercy.

Trevor Walczak, vice president of the National Association of Royalty Owners' Pennsylvania chapter, calls this law's passage “the point in time we can look back to where PA gas law began to prey upon the people rather than protect.” Time will tell if he's right about that bigger picture, but trampling private-property rights so drillers can access more land from one well is a regrettable step in that direction.

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