Marcellus Shale gas boom sparks land disputes

The Marcellus Shale natural gas discovery has triggered an associated boom in Pennsylvania land disputes, as formerly valueless mineral rights are now potentially worth millions.The heirs of a Centre County landowner asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this month to resolve a case that stripped them of their 19th-century mineral rights, now claimed by a hunting club that bought the land in 1959.The convoluted legal question affects the natural resources beneath huge expanses of timberland in the heart of the Marcellus Shale, which now accounts for nearly a quarter of the nation’s natural gas production.”Although this case concerns a dispute over the ownership of oil and natural gas under roughly 433 acres of property, the questions presented potentially affect the mineral ownership rights of hundreds of thousands of acres of property located in this commonwealth,” Ronald L. Hicks, a Pittsburgh lawyer who represents the aggrieved heirs, wrote in an Aug. 8 Supreme Court filing.The legal issue at stake, known as “title-washing,” may affect many properties that were acquired in the last century through tax sales. It is rooted in the court’s interpretation of an 1804 law allowing counties that claimed undeveloped land for unpaid taxes to also retake title to the mineral rights, sometimes unbeknownst to the subsurface owner, who was not tax delinquent.

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