POWHATAN POINT - Robert Murray said he does not oppose natural gas drilling in Eastern Ohio - he just is not going to let large oil and gas companies run over his coal mining operations.
"The oil and gas people have tried to run over me," said Murray, founder and chief executive officer of Murray Energy Corp., parent company of American Energy Corp.'s Century Mine and Ohio Valley Coal Co.'s Powhatan No. 6 mine in southern Belmont County. "These are multibillion-dollar oil and gas companies coming in here."
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has been trying to resolve the disagreement among the energy interests, which is delaying the plans of companies like Chesapeake Energy, XTO Energy, Hess Corp. and Oxford Oil Co. to drill on the acreage, for which some of the companies have paid as much as $5,200 per acre to landowners to lease. Murray said he had no choice but to object to a gas driller's plans to place wells in the area of the Century Mine because of safety concerns.
To this point, the ODNR has declined to comment on the matter, but officials in the coal and gas industries said they would like to see the department find a true solution to the problem.
"We are not trying to delay anyone," said Murray. "These people who have leased their minerals with the hope of seeing gas drilling are my friends and neighbors. I want this to happen for them.
"This is a safety issue," he continued. "I just don't want the gas wells where our human beings are, and I don't want our human beings where the gas wells are."
Murray said Ohio law allows coal operators like himself to object to natural gas well placement in coal-bearing townships if those wells will be located near an affected mine that could be breached by a gas well.
In June 2010, gas drillers working in Marshall County struck a shallow pocket of methane in an abandoned coal mine. In addition to injuring several workers, this ignited a large fire that burned for days.
"With as deep as their wells are going, it should be no problem for them to move a well a few thousand feet one way or another to ensure everyone's safety," Murray said. "We can't just have them drilling without proper planning and permitting."
Tom Stewart, vice president of the Ohio Oil and Natural Gas Association, said his industry is willing to work with coal miners to safely locate gas wells near the mines.
"Nobody from my industry has suggested that we would have drilling without planning," he said. "All we are seeking is some form of certainty so that we know what is an affected mine, and what is not an affected mine."
Murray said the definition of an affected mine has been resolved, noting this is a safety matter that is needed to protect his miners - as well as his capital investments.
"If I invest $400 million or $500 million in infrastructure for a coal mine after I have obtained the mining rights to the coal, that is an affected mine," he said in response to Stewart's previous comment regarding the coal mines. "They consider an impacted mine to be coal reserves where they may decide to mine 20 years from now - not just a currently active mine.
"The most dangerous thing our employees have to do is mine through a gas or oil well," said Murray, who said this costs about $1 million and places miners at risk.
He said mining around - rather than through - such a well would cost his company $8 million and require him to shut the affected mine down for about three weeks.
"I want the Ohio (DNR) and the oil and gas people to follow the law," Murray added. "As someone who owns coal rights in a coal-bearing township, I have the right to object."
"We think Bob Murray should have every right to access his property, but the mineral owners who have signed oil and gas leases should also be able to access theirs," Stewart added.