WHEELING – Lawmakers may resurrect the debate over forced pooling in West Virginia during the upcoming legislative session, according to incoming House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead.

Armstead, R-Kanawha, who is expected to be elected speaker when the new Republican-controlled Legislature convenes Jan. 14 in Charleston, confirmed there have been discussions among the GOP leadership about introducing a forced pooling bill in 2015.

Forced pooling, sometimes called “lease integration” or “unitization,” allows natural gas drillers to draw the resource from beneath land where mineral owners have refused to sign leases or cannot be located, if enough surrounding landowners have signed leases. Ohio allows forced pooling, while Pennsylvania does not.

“We don’t have a bill that is ready to be introduced, but I do know that a number of different groups have been having discussions about it. There is a possibility, but I think we’re still waiting to see what comes from those discussions,” Armstead said.

Republican Delegate-elect Pat McGeehan of Hancock County said if GOP leaders do attempt to pass a forced pooling bill during the session, they shouldn’t expect him to fall in line.

“Forced pooling is a violation of private property rights,” McGeehan, who represented West Virginia’s northernmost delegate district from 2009-11 before winning election to his old seat in November, said. “This bill would essentially grant favored private businesses the power of eminent domain.”

McGeehan also believes forced pooling hurts landowners by giving gas companies unnecessary leverage in lease negotiations. This, he believes, will artificially lower lease payments and royalty rates.

Forced pooling measures failed in the Legislature in 2011, 2013 and earlier this year. The 2013 version failed to garner the necessary support even though it would have limited the practice to cases in which the landowner could not be located.

“The industry remains extremely interested in lease integration, pooling, whatever you might want to refer to it as,” said Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association. “It’s the missing link in our being able to maximize the resource in West Virginia.”

McGeehan, however, doesn’t buy that argument.

“They’ve been drilling in Texas for 100 years and they don’t have any forced pooling. … Hopefully, this is not the signal that a new GOP majority wants to send to the public,” he said.

Armstead, who works as an attorney for NiSource Corporate Services, a division of one of the country’s largest natural gas distributors, didn’t take a firm stance on forced pooling but said he’s pleased the issue is being discussed.

“I do think that it’s important that we do all that we can do reasonably to take advantage of the opportunities that the Marcellus and Utica plays have presented us,” he said. “At the same time, we want to make sure that whatever legislation is passed is fair to all parties involved. … We want to really roll up our sleeves and remove any impediments that might be there in our law to fully realizing those benefits.”

By IAN HICKS – Staff Writer The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Registe