Mineral rights can be confusing

PARKERSBURG – As the oil and gas industry moves into drilling for Marcellus and Utica Shale, property owners are scrambling to find out about the status of the mineral rights on their property.

According to available statistics, there are 2,423 mineral rights that are owned in Wood County. This does not include leases. The wells are considered real estate. The numbers do not include mineral rights that are under lease, only cases where individuals or oil and gas companies or others own the mineral rights, but not the surface land.

The total for the state is 352,247 owned mineral rights.

The highest number of mineral accounts is in Roane County, with 26,344; Wirt County lists 4,446; Ritchie has 16,493.

According to the Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, West Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of active oil and gas wells in the country.

West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection records show a drilling permit has been issued for a Utica/Marcellus Shale well on farmland in the Larkmead area. The permit was issued to Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation. Local officials believe the vertical well will be the first in Wood County for the Utica/Marcellus Shale. The surface owners’ names listed are John H. and Donna Whitlatch and Kathleen and Robert Suck. The property is in Lubeck District on southside.

Local officials noted mineral rights can be a complicated question.

Wood County Clerk Mark Rhodes said his office has fielded a number of calls lately from landowners who want to know if they own the mineral rights on their property.

“They or their neighbors have been contacted by oil and gas companies and they are trying to find out whether they own their mineral rights or not. A lot of people don’t know whether they own the mineral rights under their land,” Rhodes said.

The term “mineral rights” is actually defined as anything below the surface of the ground that constitutes a commodity and includes everything from coal, oil and gas to limestone, gold or silver, said Wood County Assessor Rich Shaffer.

“The mineral rights can be severed from the acreage. Sometimes a landowner will give their children the acreage, but may reserve the mineral rights. They may have a producing well and want to continue receiving the royalties from that,” Rhodes said.

Oil and gas companies sometimes buy the rights instead of just leasing them.

“In southern West Virginia, for example, the coal companies own most of the mineral rights there and have owned them for many years,” Shaffer said.

“You may also own the mineral rights under a large tract of land that has since been split up into smaller parcels,” he noted.

Mineral rights may also have been passed down for many years to heirs, and there could be hundreds of people owning only a small share.

“There are a lot people who don’t know if they have the mineral rights on their property. We can’t do title searches for them. They need to start with their deed to see if it mentions the mineral rights then work their way backwards to see when the mineral rights may have been severed. We are glad to help them get started, to show them where to go in the records room. Then once you find the rights, you have to go forward again to see what happened to them” Rhodes said.

“Mineral rights can be very complicated,” Shaffer said. “It may have been left to a lot of heirs, someone might only own 1/100th of it.

“Your deed may even state the rights have been reserved prior to the property being purchased so you could buy a piece of property and not have purchased the mineral rights with it,” Shaffer said.

Tax tickets are issued for leased or in-production wells.

It can get even more complicated, because the lease may only be for the Marcellus or Utica Shale, or the shallow layers. Potentially there could be several people or companies leasing different layers on one site.

“The different layers is a fairly recent development,” Shaffer said.

“Washington County has seen some of the layers issues, we haven’t really seen any of that here yet,” Rhodes said.

If heirs inherit mineral rights, Rhodes said they are notified and should receive a tax ticket for their share. If the taxes become delinquent, the rights, or share thereof, are sold at the delinquent tax sale.

Oil and gas companies do sometimes purchase those, planning to lease them out, or they will try to accumulate the rest of the interest, officials said.

According to the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, new drilling permits have more than tripled in recent years.