Judge allows shale driller to cut trees before bats wake up

Beaver County family challenges site lease

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A federal judge gave the green light on Friday to cut trees on a Beaver County farm that highlights two issues in the shale gas boom: the fairness of drilling leases and the impact on the environment.

The McRoberts family, of Darlington Township, have filed a court challenge to a lease they signed in 2005, before many people knew about the region's shale gas, saying they were tricked into a deal that has so far given them nothing.

"When those land men came around seven years ago, they made us think there's this big crack in the earth filled with gas," said Kevin McRoberts, a member of the family, in an interview. "They said, 'Your neighbor signed, so you'd better sign, because we're going to take your gas anyway.' "

Chesapeake Appalachia bought the lease from a third party and, while planning the drilling site in February, discovered that the property is a hibernating area for the endangered Indiana bat. Far from scotching the company's plans, the finding lent them new urgency, since U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rules bar clearing land in the bat's habitat during its hunting season, from April through November.

"The immediate next step is to clear the trees by Saturday at midnight," said attorney Dave Fawcett, who represented Chesapeake at a hearing before U.S. District Judge David S. Cercone.

The judge issued a temporary restraining order barring the McRoberts family from taking any action to prevent contractors from coming onto their 263-acre dairy farm. Contractors promptly began carving a road into the future well pad site, which previously was strip mined but now has trees.

The decision doesn't end the fight, said Steven Townsend, an attorney with ShaleAdvice, which is representing the McRoberts family. He represents a half-dozen Darlington families suing in Common Pleas Court in Beaver County, challenging the legality of leases bought by Chesapeake. The case may now go to federal court.

Most drilling leases, according to Mr. Townsend, include either a promise to drill promptly and pay royalties, or provide "delay rental" payments until activity starts. The McRoberts family got neither when land men approached them in 2005, he said, and haven't gotten a penny so far.

"For years, landowners have been taken advantage of by these landmen and these oil and gas companies, because they don't understand the complexities of an oil and gas lease," Mr. Townsend said. "It's about time that courts step in and say, listen, we need to provide these landowners with protections."

In a statement, Stacey Brodak, senior director of corporate development, said the company tried to resolve the issue without going to court but "the landowners refused to allow us onto the location in an effort to terminate our valid lease -- solely with the purpose of gaining different terms for their lease."

Mr. Fawcett said there has "been a heck of a lot of work that's been done" based on the lease, showing the judge an inch-thick permit application.

A Chesapeake field supervisor, Roger Emmelhainz, said he became aware that the land was a bat hibernating site when he ran the proposed well coordinates through a database of endangered species sites.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet about the bats recommends against timbering in their habitat, saying, "the forests above and around [hibernation sites] should not be dramatically altered. After all, Indiana bats are animals of the forest. Once as plentiful as the passenger pigeon, these little flying mammals are rapidly falling toward extinction."

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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