Thursday, April 05, 2018

In significant Pa. ruling on fracking, appeals court clears way for trespassing claims against gas companies

A Pennsylvania appeals court ruled this week that three siblings can proceed with a lawsuit alleging that Southwestern Energy Production Co. trespassed on their property by extracting natural gas from their land through a hydraulic fracturing well (presumably horizontal) on adjacent property. The ruling "negates a legal principle in oil and gas law that allows companies to siphon natural resources from beneath land they do not own without compensating the landowner," Terrie Morgan-Besecker reports for the Scranton Times-Tribune.

Adam Briggs filed the lawsuit in 2015 regarding 11 acres in Harford Township owned by him, his brother and his sister. Southwestern has operated two fracked wells since 2011 on adjacent property, and Briggs says his family has never been compensated.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit because of a legal principle called the "rule of capture," which "allows companies to drain a natural resource, including oil, gas or water, from beneath property they do not own as long as they do not trespass on the land," Morgan-Besecker reports. The principle behind the rule is that gas and oil migrate across property lines, especially when a well changes pressure in the rock formation. Based on the rule, courts have ruled that companies can extract oil and gas without having to compensate adjoining property owners.

The Briggses' attorney argued the shouldn't apply to gas extracted through fracking because the gas in deep, "tight" formations like the Marcellus Shale doesn't freely migrate, and is freed only through fracking. The state Superior Court agreed, saying "Unlike oil and gas originating in a common reservoir, natural gas, when trapped in a shale formation, is nonmigratory in nature."

It's not known if Southwestern will appeal the decision. If it doesn't, the ruling would set a precedent that would impact similar disputes in Pennsylvania, Morgan-Besecker reports.

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