An upcoming symposium at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law wants to focus on the legal gray areas of a big black rock.
Law students at Pitt have organized "Developing the Law of the Marcellus Shale," a day-long conference on the legal world of the Marcellus Shale, a massive rock formation lying under Pennsylvania and surrounding states that's being tapped by energy companies for the lucrative natural gas inside.
Most drilling has occurred in more rural parts of the state, in the counties that house Pitt's branch campuses. But as law firms add energy specialists and industry executives plan 40-year business plans, the organizers of Tuesday's symposium say they want to step into the controversial conversation and examine an unformed law.
The Tuesday event, which convenes industry representatives with professors and practicing attorneys, will run from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. at the University Club on Pitt's Oakland campus. Registration is available at http://www.law.pitt.edu/events/2011/04/developing-the-law-of-the-marcellus-shale.
The symposium is open to the public, and organizers expect the crowd to hit the room's capacity of 200 people.
Indeed, a land rush by prospecting energy companies in the past few years seems to have been followed by a "land rush" of academics trying to make sense of the situation.
To find academics already steeped in the natural gas field, co-organizer Patrick Yingling, a third-year law student at the Law Review's articles editor, said his team turned to professors in Pittsburgh's "boom town" predecessors like Oklahoma and Kansas.
David Pierce of Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kan. will speak on the legal questions that can emerge from hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the process that's used to drill underground and extract gas. The drills can travel under several properties, and that raises questions about land rights and trespassing.
The state's energy development in the 1800s and early 1900s made landowners more savvy about the complications surrounding land ownership, like the separation of land rights and mineral rights, he said. It's not uncommon for a person to own a piece of land but not the gas that lies beneath it.
It can create a slew of legal complications as drilling permits are signed, said Mr. Pierce.
"You're basically taking a body of law developed at the turn of the century and evaluating it when you're trying to deal with more contemporary problems," he said.
Catching the law up to speed "can take decades," said Mr. Pierce, which is often much slower than excited energy companies want to move. In February, 448 permits to drill gas wells were registered with the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The symposium lineup also features some familiar industry proponents who will make a case for shale development.
The opening speaker, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, was tapped by Gov. Tom Corbett to chair the governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. And the keynote address will be delivered by Kathryn Klaber, who heads the Marcellus Shale Coalition industry group and has become a fixture at natural gas forums across the state.
The industry hasn't been as embraced by Allegheny County as it has in other parts of the state. Fracking and other controversial industry practices prompted Pittsburgh City Council to declare a city-wide moratorium on drilling in November 2010.
Stepping into an issue as divisive as shale drilling can be tricky for an institution that prizes academic freedom and objectivity, said Law School Dean Mary Crossley.
Schools like Penn State and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. have become leading voices in the shale conversation -- and set themselves up as prime targets for advocates who see an agenda in their research.
"You can't always control how people perceive you," said Ms. Crossley.
But as debates heat up around Pittsburgh over drilling in Allegheny County, Ms. Crossley said the university should step in as an objective "convenor" for all people studying the shale landscape.
"It would be a mistake to say that we shouldn't play any role in this very important dialogue because that risk exists," she said.
Ms. Crossley and the law school faculty have another reason to acquaint students with the topic: a rapidly expanding job market in energy law. In recent months, area firms like Babst Calland and Pepper Hamilton LLP have boosted their ranks with energy law specialists.
Mr. Yingling, who will accept a position at Reed Smith upon graduation, said he hopes to pursue Marcellus Shale litigation with the firm.
He has some pro bono experience from traveling to his hometown in rural Clearfield County.
There, "when you tell people you're going to law school, the first thing they ask you is if you know anything about the Marcellus Shale," he said.
Erich Schwartzel: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1455.