Pa. landowners sue over gas leases

Associated PressOctober 15, 2008 

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Scores of people who own land above a potentially lucrative natural gas reservoir are seeking to void the drilling leases they signed and accused a Lexington, Ky., land agent of guaranteeing a lower royalty than the amount allowed by state law.

The property owners filed a lawsuit in federal court in Pennsylvania last week against The Keeton Group LLC of Lexington.

The lawsuit stems from a rush of activity by exploration companies to capitalize on the largely untapped Marcellus Shale gas reservoir while natural gas prices are high. Property owners from West Virginia to New York have complained of aggressive "land men" pushing them to sign leases that allow an exploration company to drill down to the Marcellus Shale, a layer of thick black rock that holds a vast reservoir of gas.

The law cited by the plaintiffs guarantees a property owner at least one-eighth of the royalties from the recovery of oil and gas on their land. However, the suit said the leases violate state law because they give the exploration company the right to subtract taxes, assessments and adjustments on production from the 12.5 percent royalty.

The suit, filed Thursday, said the approximately 130 plaintiffs own more than 18,000 acres in northern Pennsylvania. The contracts were signed with Keeton between April 2005 and March 2006, the suit said.

A telephone message left Tuesday with The Keeton Group was not immediately returned. On an outdated version of its Web site, Keeton touts its record as an early arrival on the Marcellus Shale.

"Our group was among the first to acquire lease rights for the current Marcellus Shale drilling activities — not only in Pennsylvania but also in 7 other states under which this vast geological formation lies," the Keeton site said.

The gas reservoir beneath the Marcellus Shale was long known to exist, but only recently has drilling technology improved enough to cost-effectively tap into it. According to state officials, drilling activity on the formation is taking place at about 275 well sites, and fewer than 20 sites are producing gas.

To date, exploration companies have spent $2 billion on leasing land, performing seismic studies and other activities in pursuit of Marcellus Shale gas in Pennsylvania, according to Stephen Rhoads, the president of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association.

Companies as large as ExxonMobil Corp. have shown interest in Pennsylvania, which is one of four states that sit atop 54,000 square miles that analysts say hold the best exploration prospects.

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