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Greg Larry is a reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. To reach him, call 304-639-4951, email glarry@times-news.com and follow him on Twitter @greglarryctn.

Beitzel halts effort for land rights compensation

Del. Wendell Beitzel

CUMBERLAND — An effort by Del. Wendell Beitzel to seek state compensation for landowners — prevented from capitalizing on mineral rights — has ended.

As a bill banning fracking continues to move forward in the Maryland legislature, Beitzel sought to seek compensation for those he believes have been faced with a loss of property rights.

Beitzel, and the rest of the four-person District 1 legislative delegation, have been staunchly pro-fracking. However, the Maryland General Assembly is moving increasingly closer to a ban on the practice.

On Wednesday, the Maryland Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee voted 8-3 to pass a bill banning fracking that already cleared the House of Delegates.

The move to ban fracking in Maryland received a shot in the arm last week when Gov. Larry Hogan, in a surprise move, announced he would back a ban on the process.

Beitzel is one of Garrett County’s largest landowners. He said he and fellow legislators introduced two bills this week supporting land rights: one in the House and one in the Senate.

“If the fracking bill passes, the state would have to compensate for the property rights that were taking from them,” said Beitzel. “I withdrew the bill in the House and the other one got lost in committee in Senate. It’s too late to push for it this year.”

The session of the General Assembly ends April 10.

“We’ll see what happens with the ban and take a look next year,” said Beitzel.

He expanded on his reasoning behind asking for state compensation.

“If there is a total fracking ban, that is taking property,” said Beitzel. “Land rights, in this country, when we formed it ... if you own the land you own the minerals under it. That is one of the laws that made this country unique. People got to own the property and everything under it. It’s been held sacred over the years. People fought and died for those rights.”

Beitzel said over time, there became a separation of land and mineral rights. Coal and gas companies had begun paying property owners to purchase the minerals beneath their land. The companies paid property owners for leases, known as mineral rights, for the ground below the surface.

“The gas companies came in and paid people for it with leases,” said Beitzel. “They put money into leases.

“As things changed over time, the companies went out of business. No one knew who had the mineral rights. We had them restored back to the land.”

Beitzel said he and Sen. George Edwards got a bill called the Dormant Minerals Act passed in 2012. The act allowed people, if they can prove the mineral rights ownership could not be traced, the mineral rights returned to the (surface) land owner.

Beitzel cited previous cases, such as George’s Creek Coal versus the Maryland Bureau of Mines, as precedent for land rights law.

“Former judge Stuart Hamill, no longer with us, he ruled in favor of a coal company: either you mine or pay them for it,” said Beitzel. “I think this is a similar situation.”

Beitzel has been disappointed by the turn toward a ban.

“That is one of the toughest things,” said Beitzel “Coal is hurting; you can’t do natural gas. What’s next? Make it one big state park?”

Beitzel said he hopes the climate around fracking will evolve.

“Things could change. There could be new technologies and different techniques the environmental movement might not be so opposed to. The gas is in the ground and it is not going (anywhere). There may come time when they need it.”

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