On September 25, 2012, the West Virginia Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the case of Martin, et al. v. Hamblet, Docket No. 11-1157. The issue in this case is whether a surface owner is vested with the right to an administrative hearing on and subsequent appeal of a drilling permit for a shallow horizontal well. Currently, the West Virginia statutes provide such rights to coal owners, coal lessees and coal operators only. Under West Virginia law, surface owners may submit written comments in the drilling permit application process in regards to shallow wells and may recover for certain damages to the surface estate. Under current case law, they only have a right to an administrative hearing on and subsequent appeal of a drilling permit for a deep well subject to statutory pooling.
The Hamblet surface owner’s arguments rely on the due process and equal protection clauses of the West Virginia and United States Constitutions and a controversial West Virginia Supreme Court precedent, while the OOG and gas operator are arguing for the court to apply the plain meaning interpretation of the existing statutes.
A Supreme Court decision in favor of the Hamblet surface owner may blur the distinction between shallow and deep wells and exponentially increase a surface owner’s role in the permitting process.