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Gas law issue won't go to W.Va.'s high court yet

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (AP) -- A federal judge has changed her mind about having the West Virginia Supreme Court answer a question on gas drilling laws that could have statewide economic implications.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Irene Keeley said the justices should rule conclusively on whether the law allows a gas drilling company to use Richard Cain's land to sink horizontal wells that would draw gas from neighboring tracts.

But last week, she issued a second order saying that decision was premature. That restarted the Marion County man's case and lets both sides put more facts into the record.

"Surface owners don't think all those additional facts are necessary," Julie Archer of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization said Wednesday.

Archer said her group is disappointed with the delay "while landmen are out there every day telling surface owners that they have to let the drillers on their land."

"We do not believe that is true," she said.

Property owners are being pressured into signing surface use agreements "for too little money, without enough protections for well sites," she said. "Well sites that they may not want at all."

Keeley has said the case "could have far-reaching legal and economic implications" and that "such important and unsettled issues of state law should ... be decided by West Virginia's highest court."

Cain says Exxon Mobil Corp. subsidiary XTO Energy plans to use the best of his land for as many as 18 well pads, leaving him with mostly steep, unusable hillsides.

He concedes he doesn't own the rights to oil, gas and minerals under his 105 acres. But Cain argues a 1907 deed at the center of his lawsuit never envisioned such extensive surface disruption.

XTO denies doing anything illegal and says it paid $63,000 for a pipeline right of way easement to transport oil, gas water and other substances across Cain's property. It calls the plan to use 36 acres of Cain's land "reasonably necessary" for exercising its rights.

Keeley has said that question is at the heart of the dispute because neither side has identified a "clear controlling West Virginia precedent" to guide her decision.