If you've leased your land to a natural gas company and want to get out of it, attorney Joe Heath has two words:
And, if your lease has expired and you're thinking you're out of the woods, Mr. Heath, an attorney who specializes in environmental law, has two more words:
"This is not simple. It's complex and complicated-and the companies want it to be that way," Mr. Heath told about 50 people at a gas lease workshop in Carlisle last Tuesday.
A handful of those in the audience have gas leases on their land; others came to listen.
Carlisle's Planning Board sponsored the event, said member Linda Cross, after hearing from a number of residents whose leases were set to expire-and didn't know what to do next.
"There's a lot more information about things like hydrofracking than when the landmen first came through," Ms. Cross explained.
"People have questions and concerns. I know a lot of folks just want to stop fracking. But they need to realize for those who signed leases and maybe they wish now they hadn't, it's not that easy."
Mr. Heath and Mike Bosetti, a former gas lease owner who successfully fought the extension of his lease, talked about the difficulties of understanding a gas lease-even for attorneys.
"I've been a lawyer since '75 and this industry shocks me daily," Mr. Heath said, adding,
"I've found most lawyers can't read a gas lease."
When Mr. Bosetti bought his property in 2000, like many in Cortland County, where both men live, it came with a five-year gas lease.
In 2005, he said, he was notified by gas company Columbia Natural Resources--which had bought his lease from Trianna Energy, which had bought it from the original leesee Phillips Production Company-that they had extended it another five years.
He objected in writing-a required step--but getting the issue resolved took him five months and he had to notify every company that held an interest in the lease-information that's not readily available and took hours of persistence at his County Clerk's office.
Mr. Heath told the crowd that leases signed in 2000 are much easier to read-and challenge--than those signed just a few years later.
One example he offered is gas companies' definition of the word "operations"; in many leases, once operations-now very broadly defined as clearing trees, constructing roads, or even just placing a piece of heavy equipment nearby-begin, a lease is considered extended.
"The companies are testing what they can get away with." Mr. Heath said, adding, "The expiration of a lease does not mean it's formally terminated."
Mr. Bosetti was lucky; many leases can't be terminated without help from an attorney and as for those with automatic extensions, "We haven't found lawyers willing to take that on," Mr. Heath said.
Questions from the audience included whether not cashing a check from a gas company is enough to terminate a lease that's run its course.
Not cashing a check doesn't necessarily offer any protection, Mr. Heath said, but cashing a check may be enough to extend the lease.
Once you've notified a gas company you're terminating your contract, they have 30 days to respond; to do that, all they have to do is file an affidavit with the local County Clerk, saying the lease is extended, Mr. Heath said.
If they don't take that step and you file your own affidavit, you may be in the clear.
There have been some verified reports of actual fraud-forged signatures, switched pages--by gas companies.
"If there's any funny business with your lease, you need to make your objections known to the gas company," Mr. Bosetti said.
Mac Holmes of Carlisle was one who said he signed a lease after talking with friends in Western New York who were experienced with natural gas.
"I hadn't even heard of hydrofracking...I'm not for or against it," he said, but he's contesting his lease-and not cashing gas company checks-because not all of the landowners' signatures were on the lease.
It's probably not a valid lease, said Mr. Heath, offering to look at any lease emailed to him at email@example.com or faxed to (315) 475-2465.
"We're trying to build enough awareness to level the playing field," he added.
"In three years of doing this, we've found the more people share their stories and get together with their neighbors...that's really the only way we're going to protect ourselves."
Resources for those interested in challenging their gas leases include:
• Gas Drilling Awareness of Cortland County, PO Box 5151, Cortland, NY 13045, gdacc.wordpress.com, or Mary Beilby at Mary.firstname.lastname@example.org.
GDACC helped coordinate last Tuesday's talk in Carlisle.
• Fleased, "providing a voice for landowners who leased mineral rights before Marcellus shale gas exploitation was known to threaten our land, air, water, and communities," fleased.org, email@example.com, (607) 539-7133.
• Environmental attorney Joe Heath, 716 East Washington Street, Syracuse, NY 13210.
Mr. Heath is seldom at his desk, but will look at leases emailed to him, firstname.lastname@example.org, or faxed, (315) 475-2465. (His phone number is (315) 475-2559.
• Mike Bosetti, a Cortland County landowner who successfully challenged the extension of his gas lease, Mike.email@example.com.