My endless battle with EQT
, who lives in southwestern Pennsylvania, tells his personal story of a conflict with the energy companies who want to exploit the land.
THE FOLLOWING is a tale of corporate greed and hubris forced on us because we had enough respect for our rights to the land and minerals (which we own) to not let it be stolen by David Porges, CEO of EQT Corp. This is merely one example of what is happening due to the coal and gas occupation here in Appalachia. This experience is worth telling in the hopes of inspiring action on the part of "We the People..."--lest we be considered "criminal ancestors" by our grandchildren.
It's a long story, so I'll be as brief as possible. We have lived here in western Greene County, Penn., for 35 years. EQT--which I may refer to as David Porges at times since corporations insist on having personhood--had a lease on our oil and gas rights for the last 13 years as there exists a shallow gas well on our property. The well was drilled in 1913 when Carnegie Gas held the original lease, until its merger with EQT in 2000. The lease was "held by production"--a provision in drilling leases that allows companies to continue their activities beyond the initial lease term if there is a minimum amount of oil or gas being produced.
One day, as I walked past this well, I noticed the valve that allows the gas to flow from the well into the gathering line of Equitrans, part of EQT, was shut off. We looked online at state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources production records and discovered EQT had not produced gas from this well in years. I recommend all land owners look at their shallow gas well leases from the early 1900s.
This lease on our oil and gas rights was invalid, and Mr. Porges was not only aware of this, but maintained this invalid lease for his own benefit. To preserve the image the their lease was still valid, EQT continued to send us our royalty check of $100, twice a year along, while continuing our free gas as part of the lease.
We attempted to consult David Porges' office to work out a new lease as we were now aware that the current one was invalid. There was no response from Porges' office. Meanwhile, we were turning people away from our door who wanted to make our property part of a unit that uses fracking to get natural gas from the Marcellus Shale. After being informed that a lease already existed for our oil and gas rights, the Marcellus land agents immediately turned away and went to the leaseholder to sign the land up for the Marcellus operation.
A geo-kinetic tester also came to our door, wanting permission to drill and blast on our property to find sweet spots for a Marcellus shale operation. We mentioned EQT's lease, whereupon a letter was presented to us from EQT that "strongly recommends" we cooperate with the geo-kinetic tester. At this point, we knew David Porges had no interest in a new lease and was fishing for a lucrative involvement with Marcellus Shale fracking in this area.
At that point, we had no choice but to file an "affidavit of non-production" that challenged their lease, making it impossible for David Porges to sign on with a Marcellus unit. David Porges had one of his subordinates call us to let us know they were not interested in negotiating a new lease. Eventually, they officially surrendered their lease on our oil and gas rights.
Now the fun really began.
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OUR FREE gas for the last 35 years came from the gathering line, not the wellhead, as the lease dictated. We had no problems with our gas service from Equitable Gas (another part of EQT). Since EQT took over the lease, we have been Equitable customers. Every month, we received a bill from Equitable Gas with a customer account number. Our meter was read every month telling us how much gas we used. The only difference between our bill and a paying customer's bill is that we had a "0" where a dollar amount should be. We expected, after the lease was surrendered, that we would have to start paying our gas bill by simply putting a dollar amount where a "0" used to be.
We were surprised to receive a registered letter in November stating we have four days to find another heat source as EQT was coming to take the meter and shut off our gas. The reaction from David Porges' office when questioned about this action was: "Well, you're the one who had the lease surrendered!" My immediate thought was that of a child in Italy I witnessed crying, "A mio, a mio, a mio," (it's mine, it's mine, it's mine) when his toy was taken from him. We believe this behavior continues, resulting in an array of retaliatory actions, of which I will mention only a few.
We had to file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) to have it determined that we are already customers of Equitable Gas, and to become paying customers, we only need to have a dollar amount put on the bill instead of "0." Equitable wanted us to sign a TLSA (temporary limited service agreement), which is not applicable to our situation and gives rights to Equitable and David Porges that entailed such things as not having to pay their customers for alternative energy sources, should the line be taken up, or they lose their gas for any reason.
But as long as there is a PUC hearing scheduled, our gas cannot be shut-off. At least that is what the state of Pennsylvania regulations states. David Porges has attempted three times to shut off our gas, to no avail each time. He intimidated us with false threats and deliberate actions that are paybacks for the lease being surrendered. He would not give up (a mio!) and finally went above the PUC, which has no jurisdiction over production companies, and hired a third party from elsewhere in the state to come down, disrupt and abort the Pennsylvania PUC's authority and shut off our gas. Just before this happened, we filed an injunction in local court to stop them from turning off our gas based on the fact that we have a PUC hearing scheduled to determine the validity of our claim as already being customers.
So we go to court, representing ourselves (try to find an attorney who is not afraid of the corporations), and here comes David Porges' silk-stockinged, pin-striped attorney, wheeling a briefcase down the street as if in an airport, with witnesses and another attorney. They looked like clowns waiting for the next VW bug. For one and a half hours, they fed the judge a line of bullshit that the judge seemed to enjoy the smell of.
The outcome? The judge dismissed EQT's objections to an injunction that would prevent EQT from shutting off the gas until the PUC hearing. But the judge then made us pay a $5,000 bond that would go to David Porges should we try to stop them from turning the gas off. In other words, he was allowing them to shut the gas off, with an insurance policy to boot.
This decision made no sense, but within a week or two, our gas was shut off by workers who had a police escort to protect them from us 60-year-olds.
So now we have no gas, and David Porges could not have cared less--and stated so in writing--that we had made plans for our 95-year-old cousin to be released from a rehab center to stay with us until a few days before our PUC hearing, when her daughter from California could come to get her. The nursing home even contacted EQT and explained that she could not stay with us if the gas was shut off. Again, EQT's explanation was that we should have found another energy source.
We are being pegged by David Porges as the bad guys for still wanting free gas after the lease was voluntarily surrendered and for not getting a different gas source when threatened. EQT continues to claim they are "prudent" operators, even though they had a legal obligation to surrender this lease years ago. And this is only half the story.
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WE ALSO want control over our well, which has been abandoned and is next to our home. There is plenty of gas in it, and many people in this area get gas to their homes from abandoned wells. (Of course, since the world's largest gas field has been discovered beneath us, everybody is having their gas taken away in order for greedy corporate gassholes to take advantage of the Marcellus Shale, leaving all of us to find another heat source.) All David Porges has to do is sign a one-page document relieving EQT of liability and transferring the well to us, making us liable for operating and plugging the well if necessary.
EQT had no problem transferring the well to us, and we met with EQT's attorney and several staff people. Everybody was in agreement that the most sensible and logical thing to do with this well, instead of plugging it, would be to transfer it to us. First, the well is not depleted. Second, our home would have a higher value with continued free gas to complement our gas from their Equitable line. Three, EQT would save thousands of dollars by not having to plug it. And four, environmentally, it is safer to not plug the weel, as it sits next to a stream and our water well. And five, while hundreds of mines in the area are being bought and plugged by coal companies who want to long-wall mine the coal underneath, our well sits on a 500-foot buffer zone of coal that can't be mined due to a boundary between two coal companies.
We received their transfer document, which turned out to be page after page of conditions that basically gives David Porges the rights to our gas again, while controlling all aspects of our well. Are you also thinking blackmail? Why are they doing this? They refuse to answer this question--just as George W. Bush refused to answer what "noble cause" our sons and daughters were dying for in Iraq. Of course, the answer is the same for both questions.
We have learned that gas wells impeding coal extraction are being bought by coal companies for large sums of money so the coal under them can be long-wall mined. Porges may be anticipating that the coal companies whose boundary lines runs under our well will come to some agreement about the coal in the buffer zone, thereby freeing up the well to be sold to them for plugging.
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THE PENNSYLVANIA Department of Environment Protection, (DEP) upon discovering that a registered owner such as EQT has been in continuous violation of the regulations could rescind the well registration. The operation of the well could then be transferred to another entity or landowner. But they refuse to do so, despite the regulations. They say their only recourse is to make EQT plug the well.
So here we have Corporate America (in the form of David Porges, EQT, Equitrans, Equitable) throwing its weight around influencing the local courts, Gov. Tom Corbett, the DEP (Don't Expect Protection), local politicians and the media to obey its will or else.
And I have news for you. The "or else" is nothing compared to what our grandchildren will be left with if the corporations continue unchecked.
We are among hundreds who have gas corporations holding invalid shallow gas leases on private property, taking advantage of the Marcellus Shale gas play to increase their bottom line at the expense of the local population. Put our story together with the coal and gas occupation we are under, here in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio and it is not difficult to see that us "hillbillies" are being treated no differently than those "ragheads" in the Middle East.
We are in the way of energy corporations who rape the land and destroy our water and air (my spring is gone from the plugging of a different gas well), destroy the infrastructure, our history and a way of life for low- or moderate-income families.
We will not give up fighting for our rights despite the almighty corporations' hell-bent desire to destroy this planet for the almighty dollar. And we will not sell the coal we own under our gas well so David Porges can be liable for it forever.
Please do not confuse this article as a personal gripe on my part. I would not trade my life for anything. I am fortunate compared to the millions under the oppressive thumb of corporate America. This is merely one example. As I sent this article to be published, we still are going to court--representing ourselves again--against the DEP and EQT to secure our gas well for our own needs. There's more to come.