A state Senate committee moved forward Thursday on a proposal to allow gas industry surveyors onto private property without owners' permission.
The bill, the latest in a series of measures from the Legislature to aid gas companies, is a direct response to an August court order that barred gas pipeline developers from entering three families' properties without their permission.
Gas companies and other utilities already have permission to enter and use private property, under the state's eminent domain law, if they are doing so for a "public use."
So a gas company is allowed to enter your backyard if it's planning a pipeline to connect homes in your neighborhood to a gas supply.
But in the August ruling, a Monroe County judge ruled that the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would run from Wetzel County south to Virginia, had no "public use" to the people of West Virginia.
The pipeline would not transport gas to anyone in West Virginia; it would only transport gas out of the state.
"The pipeline cannot be considered for public use' on the basis of its use by gas shippers, Monroe Circuit Judge Robert Irons wrote. "Gas shippers do not constitute the general public of West Virginia.
The bill (SB 596) passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday explicitly says that allowing gas companies onto private property to survey land for pipelines is in the public interest.
It would allow the companies to survey the property before the courts determine whether there is a "public use" for the specific pipeline.
It would allow gas companies to enter and survey private property so long as they send a letter to the property owners and occupiers saying that they intend to come on the property. In the letter, they must ask permission to enter the property, but it doesn't matter what the property owner says in response. The company could enter the property without permission, just asking would be enough.
There are currently seven pipeline projects in various stages of planning and development that originate in northern West Virginia and would transport gas produced by the region's Marcellus Shale boom.
"I can understand the heartburn that landowners have with this, but we've got to get the gas out of the state, said Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. "I think the bill has to pass."
The bill is the Legislature's latest effort to boost the state's gas industry, but at the expense of landowners.
The Senate has passed a bill making it much more difficult for neighbors to sue gas developers if their homes are flooded with noise, dust and light pollution. It has passed a bill to allow well pad construction to begin before developers get well permits. And the House is working on a bill to allow companies to drill into co-owned mineral tracts even if some of the mineral owners refuse.
Sen. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier, said he had a problem with the Legislature changing the law explicitly in response to the circuit judge's ruling. He said many of his constituents were farmers who lived on land passed down by their ancestors.
"You can't put a value on something you've held for five generations, Miller said. "We've simply made it possible and easier for those folks to lose what's been part of their makeup, part of who they are, part of what they're about.
At one point, Miller proposed an amendment that would have changed only one word, but would have dramatically altered the effect of the bill.
The fallout from Miller's proposal was illustrative of the major role that industry lobbyists often play in the legislative process in West Virginia.
Miller's amendment would have required natural gas companies to have a certificate for their pipeline from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission before they could survey someone's property without permission.
The amendment was approved very quickly on a unanimous voice vote.
But, just after it passed, the committee's legal counsel Tom Kleeh, said he thought there was someone from the gas industry who wanted to speak about the amendment.
The committee then called on Bob Orndorff, a lobbyist for Dominion Resources, to discuss the amendment that they had just approved.
Orndorff told them that gas companies have to do their surveying before they get the federal pipeline permit.
"What the amendment did was pretty much nullify the bill, Orndorff said.
The committee then quickly voted to rescind its approval of Miller's amendment. It voted on the amendment again, this time soundly defeating it, and then voted to pass the bill on to the full Senate, where it could be passed early next week.
Reach David Gutman at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.
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