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Advice offered on shale drilling

At Heather Houlahan's farm, chickens run freely through brush, turkey flocks roam from field to field and five shepherd dogs keep them all in line. It's the farm of her dreams, but when she and her husband bought it in 2008, they didn't understand how the gas boom was reshaping rural life.

Her water comes from natural springs, and she worries about the complaints of well water contamination that have often followed Marcellus shale gas drilling. She doesn't own the farm's mineral rights and, like scores of other landowners around the state, she's trying to figure out how to protect her 26 acres of land and water.

"It doesn't really help me if I can sue (a driller) after our well is contaminated," said Houlahan, 45, of Lancaster in Butler County. "It's not about money. It's about living our way of life."

Landowners have a lot to consider to protect themselves, said Ross Pifer, director of the Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law. Drilling agreements will affect generations, and landowners need to thoroughly understand the law, their leases and land deals to prepare for permanent consequences, he said.

Pifer spoke to Houlahan and about 20 other people Wednesday night at a meeting in Richland on the maze of state law and regulation governing drilling. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture has been holding meetings in four counties to teach people how to monitor industry impacts and to help mineral owners decide whether drilling is right for them.

"You have to know what your rights are and be prepared to act in your best interest," Pifer said. "If I'm a surface owner, I want to raise every issue on how this might impact my land."

Surface owners - those who don't own their land's mineral rights - do have a right to notification and can ask drillers to sign a surface-use agreement if a well is going on their land. Drillers don't have to sign the agreement but often will to ensure they won't get sued for unreasonably disturbing the land, Pifer said.

Most of Pifer's recommendations were for potential leaseholders. The key is to make demands from the drilling companies, he said.

• Ask for a right of first refusal at the end of the lease. If a lease expires, that gives people the power to seek a better deal from another company.

• Limit the types of formations and mineral rights in the lease. This prevents drillers from getting free or cheap control of other minerals like coal or to hydrocarbons from other formations under the land.

• Ask to block or have final approval on surface use. With the right lease provisions, landowners can have a say where a well pad or access road goes, and maybe even block those impacts from their land altogether.

• All special agreements should go in an addendum to help clarify a lease.

"If you're a landowner, I think you need to know what your deal-breakers are. And in most cases, you have to ask for what you want," Pifer said. "In most cases, many companies will agree to the requests that you make -- before you sign the lease."

Pifer will lead one more legal seminar for the association at 6 p.m. Aug. 22 at the Greene County Fairgrounds 4H Building.

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