After Pa. couple discovers plan to drill on unleased land, energy company cancels permit

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    There are plenty of Pennsylvania landowners who do not want to have gas companies drill underneath their properties, even if it means not cashing in on the natural gas rush. One couple who held out recently found out by accident a gas company’s plans for their land.

    It all started with beans.

    Joyce and Steve Libal run a small orchard on their 63 acres in Susquehanna County where they sell fruit and organic vegetables.

    One day in early September, a friend came by to purchase 10 pounds of green bush beans.

    “In this area, with all the drilling going on, the conversations usually end up talking about the gas industry and he just brought up that he had seen, he’s a borough councilman and they received a packet of information about a well pad behind our house,” Steve Libal remembers.

    A map the gas company sent to the municipality shows a plan for a well pad just over the hill beyond the thick row of trees at the back of their property. A dotted line shows a well bore moving 2,000 feet across their land. 

    “I just thought this has to be some sort of horrible mistake,” Joyce Libal says. “Someone made a mistake and we have to enlighten them so they can fix it.”

    They contacted the Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP said it would contact the gas company, Talisman Energy, to let it know about the situation.

    “Within hours we got a phone call and not directly from Talisman, but from a landman saying he represented Talisman,” Joyce Libal says. He wanted to know what it would take for them to sign a lease.

    It turns out that, when the DEP is evaluating a permit, it doesn’t have to check whether the gas company has secured drilling rights. The agency approved the permit and informed the couple they had 30 days to file an appeal.

    That left the Libals with two choices: They could hire a lawyer to appeal or they could consider signing a lease.

    Wrestling with the leasing question for five years

    The Libals say several companies have contacted them over the last five years. At first, they always said no. But as more of their neighbors leased their properties for drilling, the couple agreed they’d only consider it if they could get a good rate and if it didn’t involve disturbing anything on the surface of their property.

    “If a lease actually met these basic minimal requirements for us to look at it, does that mean we would actually write our names down on that paper? It would definitely be the hardest thing in our lives to do that so I still don’t know,” Joyce Libal says.

    April Crane, a spokeswoman for Talisman Energy, told StateImpact Pennsylvania there’s a difference between the permitting process and the drilling process. In other words, just because the company got a permit, doesn’t mean it intended to drill without getting a valid lease.

    Jackie Root, president of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Association of Royalty Owners, is also known as the “gas well guru.”  She’s made a living out of helping landowners in the Marcellus Shale region negotiate leases.

    “Ultimately, Talisman didn’t do anything wrong,” Root says. “They didn’t trespass on anybody’s property and they, I believe would not have drilled that lateral without having a lease in place.”

    Root says companies have to be cautious, because drilling without permission would be a very expensive mistake.

    But Joyce and Steve Libal say landowners should be protected.

    “Certainly the landowners whose land is being used for the well should receive a copy of the map and know that well is being applied for. It’s outrageous that that isn’t already happening,” Joyce Libal says.

    For the Libals, there is a somewhat satisfying ending to this story. Talisman canceled the permit from the DEP. A spokeswoman for the company says it was done as a courtesy to the landowners.

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