CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia hasn’t allowed new gas well drilling in state parks for nearly half a century, according to state agency lawyers who urged the Supreme Court on Wednesday to keep it that way.
A decision is expected later this year on the request by the Department of Environmental Protection and Division of Natural Resources to reverse a circuit judge’s ruling that would allow five new wells at Chief Logan State Park.
Tom Smith, representing DNR, said Judge Roger Perry relied on incorrect information when he found that state parks have seen new wells. Any new drilling has instead taken place on adjacent wildlife management areas or leased federal land, Smith said.
“DNR has unequivocally, based on law in effect since 1961, never allowed new drilling,” Smith said.
That agency oversees state parks, while DEP has denied the permits sought by Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. for the new wells.
“We believe that we’re not allowed to allow drilling on state park surface,” said DEP lawyer Kristin Boggs.
Cabot won that June 2009 ruling. The company’s lawyer told the Supreme Court that the state acquired the park land under a 1960 agreement that predates the relevant state law and specifically allowed for future, private drilling there.
The lawyer, Timothy Miller, also said that a 1974 opinion by the state Supreme Court supports Cabot’s case, as does a ruling last year by Pennsylvania’s high court and one from 1994 in a Michigan appeal.
Agreeing with Miller are the landowners who sold the property to the state for the park while keeping the rights to the minerals beneath it. The landowners have leased those rights to Cabot, which operates four pre-existing wells in the park.
“The oil and gas was expressly reserved here, with the expectation that there would be future drilling,” said their lawyer, Larry George. “There were several protective provisions put into that deed that were very unusual for its time. ... That was done to help facilitate the creation of this park.”
Justice Menis Ketchum asked several of the lawyers whether the case amounted to the government taking something of value from a private entity, and therefore requiring compensation. Miller said the other rulings he’s cited would agree.
But Smith, the DNR attorney, cautioned that a ruling in that direction could have huge implications, not only on other state parks but also other kinds of drilling or mineral mining.
“DNR recognizes that there are significant issues at play here, and significant interests,” Smith said. “We would respectfully suggest that this isn’t the case to decide it on.”
Attorneys for both Cabot and the former landowners said the justices could limit their ruling to Chief Logan and Cabot. But attorneys for the state and another lawyer, Tom Rodd, argued that not enough evidence has been gathered for a ruling on whether the state would owe Cabot compensation.
Rodd represents conservation groups and the former longtime state parks director who have intervened in the dispute. He said Cabot could sue for alleged damages — after the high court first clarified whether state law allows drilling in the park.