Speakers plead for protection during forced pooling debate

Aug. 30, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

When a study group of the Mining and Energy Commission approved a policy recommendation Wednesday to continue allowing forced pooling in North Carolina, it did so unanimously.

But that action didn’t necessarily reflect the overall popularity of their recommendation — both the general idea and some of the specific details — that will now be sent to the General Assembly for review and further action.

Compulsory pooling is used in mining and drilling to compel mineral rights owners who don’t want to sign a lease to let energy companies go ahead anyway, as long as the company presents a reasonable offer first. It began as a way to protect people from having energy companies steal their minerals without telling them or compensating them, but it has drawn criticism from many who oppose hydraulic fracturing — more commonly known as fracking — due to potential environmental and public health issues.

“I’ve been coming to a lot of these meetings — I might’ve missed one — and I still haven’t heard anything that makes me think forced pooling is a good idea,” Chatham County resident Martha Girolamy said during Wednesday’s meeting at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Raleigh. “... Nothing in this makes me think the state is protecting the individual. The individual has their home and their land, and that is it.”

Girolamy also took offense at language throughout the report that refers to property owners who don’t want to sign leases with energy companies as “holdouts,” saying that especially in the rural areas of Chatham and Lee counties where fracking will likely occur, people love their land and shouldn’t be defined by their desire to allow it to be drilled.

Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack, who leads the Mining and Energy Commission and served on the compulsory pooling study group, told Girolamy he had never thought about holdout being an offensive term before, but that she had a good point. He promised that no one would be referred to as holdouts in future reports.

In response to another point she raised, Womack said the General Assembly will hopefully look into what can be done to help landowners who signed predatory leases. Earlier in the public comments portion of the meeting, a Lee County horse farm owner raised a similar concern.

“My neighbor was preyed upon a few years ago, and she signed a terrible lease,” Keely Wood said. “I will be force-pooled. ... And it’s very sad that I will leave North Carolina because of this. I saw the same thing happen to my uncles in Pennsylvania who are dairy farmers.”

Therese Vick of the anti-fracking group Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League cried during Wood’s remarks, later saying, “That’s the reason I do this work.”

Vick said the study group deserves credit for months of research, discussion and hard work in putting together the 48-page report. But she said the argument cited many times throughout the recommendation — that forced pooling will prevent waste and improve efficiency — should have been accompanied by more specific protections for individuals.

“Most of you have spoken of fairness, and I do believe you want to be fair,” Vick said. “But the unprecedented power of this industry precludes fairness. ... Personal freedoms are seldom on the radar when gas companies come to town.”

Debbie Hall said she came representing many of her neighbors in the Cumnock area, many of whom are worried about split estates in which one party owns the land but someone else owns the minerals beneath it. It’s common in Cumnock because of the area’s coal mining history. Even the cemetery where her parents are buried is a split estate, Hall said, which worried her because whoever owns those mineral rights could allow drilling.

“I am emotional about it,” she said. “But I think that paying taxes in Lee County allows me to be emotional about where I live.”

The study group did recommend that surface owners in a split estate ought to have input regarding what drilling companies can do to and on their land once the mineral owners sign a lease or are forced into a pool, but Hall said that wasn’t good enough.

“As good as the intention may be, it doesn’t make me feel protected when you say: ‘You’re not going to have the right to say no. You’re going to have the right to say something, but you’re not going to have the right to say no,’” Hall said.

Ray Covington, a Lee County landowner who led the study group, told Hall that anyone with questions about their land should consult maps put together by Lee County Strategic Services Director Don Kovasckitz, whose hiring Covington said was Lee County’s best-ever use of tax dollars.

Those maps are available at www.leecountync.gov/Departments/GISStrategicServices.aspx.

Closing out the public comments, Lee County resident Laura Young asked if the state will have any sort of legal aid fund for people who are forced into a pool and then have to hire a lawyer to deal with the contracts and other issues they didn’t want to deal with in the first place. Ted Feitshans, a legal and economic expert who served on the study group, said nothing like that has been created yet — but that there will be serious problems if it isn’t established.