CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued a ruling Wednesday in favor of two land owners who sued EQT Production Company over a trespassing dispute that involved horizontal drilling.
The case centered around a 351 acre parcel of land in Doddridge County, known as the “Carr tract,” which was leased to EQT’s predecessors in 1901. The plaintiffs are Margot Crowder and David Wentz, a divorced couple who own three smaller parcels of the Carr tract.
In 2012, the pair became aware that EQT planned to drill on their property to extract gas from a 3,232 acre parcel that included the Carr tract. A lawyer for Crowder and Wentz sent EQT a letter telling the company that it only had the right to use their surface land to extract gas from the Carr tract, and it did not have permission to come onto their properties.
According to court documents, EQT ignored the letter and in 2013 built several two-lane roads, cleared about 42 acres of land and built a 19.7-acre well pad. In 16 months of work, EQT had drilled nine new wells on the plaintiffs’ land, and some 9.7 miles of horizontal bores under neighboring properties. EQT claimed that 37.5 percent of the horizontal bores were in the minerals beneath the Carr tract, and the remaining 62.5 percent extended into minerals beneath neighboring tracts.
In 2014, the pair filed suit against EQT in Doddridge County Circuit Court, alleging that the company had trespassed onto their surface properties.
In 2016, the circuit court, with Judge Timothy Sweeney presiding, ruled that EQT had trespassed on the properties. The case then went to trial in 2017, and the jury awarded Wentz $180,000 and Crowder $10,000 in damages.
EQT then appealed to the WV Supreme Court. In Wednesday’s ruling, the court concluded:
A mineral owner or lessee has an implicit right to use the overlying surface to access only
the minerals directly below the surface. Using the surface to extract minerals elsewhere,
without the permission of the surface owner, is a trespass. Should the mineral owner or
lessee want to utilize the surface to access minerals under neighboring land, they can
certainly reach a separate agreement with the surface owner.
You can read the full opinion here.
Following the release of the opinion, the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization issued a statement:
Surface owners can insist on being paid not what the land was worth to them as a meadow or wood lot, but instead insist on being paid what having the well pad is worth to the driller. In this case the driller expected to produce gas worth over a quarter billion dollars from this one pad. “If the surface owner valued their land being undisturbed more than getting the money, the driller can drill horizontal well bores that are a mile or even two miles long. So the driller can move the pad and access the minerals under the surface owner from a pad in a different location,” said David McMahon, a lawyer for the Crowder and Wentz, and a co-founder of the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization [WVSORO].