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Forced Utica shale pooling? Change the law

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A 1961 state law that allows “forced pooling” for Utica shale natural gas — adding property to “drilling units,” regardless of landowners' wishes — must be repealed so more Pennsylvanians won't face the same nightmare as some Lawrence County property owners.

Among them is Bob Svetlak, 73, who opposes drilling on his 14.6-acre homestead. It's targeted by Hilcorp Energy Co., which aims — through a state Environmental Hearing Board filing — to force drilling there under the half-century-old law.

If Chief Judge Thomas W. Renwand in Pittsburgh allows Hilcorp's forced pooling, he'll decide what compensation Mr. Svetlak will receive. Such a “gun to the head” deal for this landowner would only compound the injustice of the 1961 law, which applies to the Utica shale, thousands of feet deeper than the Marcellus shale.

Hilcorp claims forced Utica shale pooling ensures landowners won't miss out on financial benefits when neighboring wells, using modern hydraulic fracturing and sideways drilling, tap oil and gas beneath their properties. But drilling should be landowners' choice — period.

Lacking even the inadequate landowner protection that Pennsylvania's new Marcellus forced-pooling law provides — allowing it only for properties already under leases that don't explicitly prohibit that practice — the law shreds private property rights. Patently unconstitutional, the 1961 law must be overturned. And state lawmakers must ensure that drillers respect and abide by owners' decisions regarding private properties.

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