The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

March 26, 2014

OUR VIEW: Forced-pooling hearings should include those affected


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- — It's hard, after all we’ve seen, to imagine that the long-simmering debate about fracking for natural gas is as simple as either side says it is.

Like almost every other issue, it’s not a question of black and white. Do we need cheap energy and economic development? Yes. Do we want clean air and water? Yes. Do we know that every question in between won’t be as easy to answer? Yes we do.

Of course, the answers to those questions matter less and less as the wells are drilled and money is made and spent. The shale “boom” is going on now, here, and we’ll have to deal with the fallout, both good and bad.

That’s not to absolve the powers that be for the political and regulatory inaction that greeted unconventional drilling in Pennsylvania.

Whether the heel-dragging was deliberate or incompetent the end result is the same: Residents of the Keystone State are largely on their own when it comes to the shale boom.

But that’s OK. This is America, the home of the rugged individual. Forgetting entirely the anti-fracking arguments about environmental and health dangers and a healthy skepticism of corporate claims to the contrary, there’s always been an out for those landowners opposed to aggressive resource development: Don’t lease your land. Live and let live, right?

Well not exactly. In Pulaski, Hilcorp Energy Co. is asking the state Department of Environmental Protection to make holdout property owners submit to a 50-year-old state law that could force them to allow gas and oil drilling on their land. It’s essentially a case of private eminent domain, the process that governments use to force people to sell land when it blocks a public project.

Hilcorp wants the holdouts to sign leases so they can have a large, contiguous area for drilling, which in theory would mean fewer wells and a more efficient – read cheaper – operation. The law the company is invoking was written in the 1960s to apply to conventional drilling, not the environmentally and tectonically dicey hydraulic fracturing.

DEP was supposed to be conducting a series of public hearings on this case this week to hear the concerns of property owners, the company and leaseholders. Those hearings were called off late last week and the reason provides some fodder for those who look suspiciously at Hilcorp and DEP, which is supposed to be looking out for the best interests of the state and its residents.

It turns out DEP was relying on Hilcorp to tell it who ought to be notified about the hearings. Not surprisingly, that group didn’t include many, if any, of those property owners in Mercer and Lawrence counties who hadn’t signed a lease and logically might see some problem with forced pooling. DEP acknowledged as much when it postponed the hearings. Deputy Secretary Scott Perry’s statement spoke to both the public interest in making sure “all potentially impacted residents” had time to be informed and prepared and the real authority his agency answers to when he noted that Hilcorp “agreed to request a delay so that we could provide notices that goes above and beyond what the law requires.”

Letting folks who may be forced by a private company to participate in an activity they find personally abhorrent know about their situation shouldn’t be “above and beyond what the law requires.”

Maintaining personal autonomy and property rights may be cold comfort, as one sees their neighbors cashing in and wells going up across the road, but at least it’s something. Until it’s nothing.