Justices uphold ruling to OK drilling in state park

CHARLESTON -- The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia this week upheld the order of a lower court to allow oil and natural gas drilling in Chief Logan State Park. In the Court's opinion, delivered per curiam, it said that a ban on mineral extraction in state parks does not apply. The justices, in affirming the ruling by the Logan County Circuit Court, rejected appeals by the state Department of Environmental Protection and other conservation groups opposed to drilling in the park. The decision allows for the appellee in the case, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., to drill for the natural gas reserves it leased from Lawson Heirs, Inc., which previously owned the land. The appellants listed in the case include Randy Huffman, secretary for the state's Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Oil and Gas; the state Division of Natural Resources; the Sierra Club, Inc.; and Cordie O. Hudkins, of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Inc., and Friends of Blackwater. The groups appealed an order entered June 17, 2009 by the Logan court. According to its order, the court vacated a previous order by the DEP's Office of Oil and Gas, which had refused to issue five oil and natural gas well drilling permits. The circuit court directed the DEP office to issue the requested permits to allow development of wells in Chief Logan State Park by Cabot, under its lease of the subject mineral rights from Lawson Heirs. On appeal to the state's high court, the parties disputed whether the requested permits should be issued. The Court, in its Wednesday opinion, affirmed the circuit court's June 17, 2009 order. The justices ruled that the ban on mineral extraction in West Virginia's state parks, passed in 1961 and effective July 1 of that year, was enacted too late to apply to Chief Logan. According to Court documents, Lawson Heirs had sold more than 3,000 acres of property for the state park to the Logan Civic Association in November 1960, reserving their rights to the oil and gas beneath the area. The "pivotal question," the Court wrote, is whether the statutory provision prohibiting the DNR from authorizing mineral exploitation within state parks precludes the issuance of the well permits for which Cabot has applied. The Court said the answer is no. The justices found that the provision "has no preclusive effect upon the requested permits herein insofar as this statutory language was enacted after the 1960 deed conveying the subject property was executed." The provision, they wrote, cannot be applied "to retroactively modify the parties' written agreement memorialized in their deed." The Court continued, "In the present appeals, the 1960 deed reflects the agreement of the Lawson Heirs and the Logan Civic Association vis-a-vis the oil and gas rights underlying the property conveyed therein. As such, the 1960 deed is a contract." Justice Brent Benjamin, deeming himself disqualified, did not participate in the decision of the case. A lawyer for some of the citizen groups opposed to the drilling told The Charleston Gazette on Wednesday his clients were disappointed in the decision and expect to fie a petition for rehearing.

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