OIL WELL ORDERED PLUGGED
MILLERSBURG — Unproductive since 2009, a controversial well has been ordered plugged by a Holmes County judge.
Judge Robert Rinfret’s decision was the culmination of a civil lawsuit filed in Holmes County Common Pleas Court by Darrell and Dortha Helms against Thomas Whitney and Donald Ridgeway, who lease land and own a well on the Helms’ Brinkhaven property.
Whitney and Ridgeway are now appealing that decision.
The well, originally drilled in 1918, is known as Crider No. 4 and had been used by Whitney and Ridgeway to produce oil and gas from 1976-2009, according to court records. To that point, and into 2010, royalty payments were made to the Helmses.
Production stopped in 2009 after a storm knocked down a goat pen and disrupted electric power to the well, according to court records.
Conflict ensued about the restoration of power.
Rinfret found Helmses’ “only objection to the electrical line was that the new pole is placed in their yard.” He notes that a generator could have supplied power in the interim and full power could have been restored following the erection of a new electric line in 2011 or 2012.
Whitney and Ridgeway, through their attorney Robert Eckinger, continue to claim a generator would not have provided the steady source of power required to operate the pump and the Helmses’ failure to cooperate in the cause of the lack of production.
From 1998-2009, the well averaged 97.75 barrels of oil a year, according to Eckinger, who said there is no question about its potential to produce.
Nevertheless, Rinfret found the well, unproductive for more than two years, was inactive and must be plugged by Whitney and Ridgeway.
Rinfret’s decision nullifies the claims of Whitney and Ridgeway on the mineral rights, including those associated with future production associated with horizontal drilling.
It’s the ruling the Helmses were hoping for when they hired attorney Thomas White to help them clear the property’s title. The outstanding lease with Ridgeway and Whitney would have entitled them to the signing bonuses and the better part of royalties paid by deep drilling into the shale.
With signing bonuses in southeastern Ohio reaching $7,000 an acre, the financial gain is great for the holder of a property’s mineral rights, said White, who said many landowners are now tidying up old claims to avoid problems in the future.
But, he said, producers also are taking notice of the financial potential, often making last-ditch efforts to breathe life into old wells to preserve a claim on future production, which, because of technological deficiencies, may be several years down the road for residents in Holmes County, where reserves of natural gas are not enough to force the deep oil to the earth’s surface.
In fact, Eckinger said, Ridgeway and Whitney had made efforts to make the well active after being contacted by ODNR about it. Their efforts were abandoned when the lawsuit was filed in November 2012.
Nevertheless, Eckinger said, he believes the well not only has the potential of being productive but even more so than before. This, plus his clients’ potential gains from fracking, have prompted him to appeal to the Fifth District Court of Appeals.
Significant in Rinfret’s decision was not only the “inactive finding,” but “he gave the court authority to have the well plugged,” said White, explaining it is the first time he knows of a court making such a far-reaching order, otherwise the responsibility of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
“We think that is perfectly fine,” White said of Rinfret’s order to plug the well, calling it “a tremendous assist to landowners in getting old wells and leases off the land.”
Ridgeway and Whitney would disagree, and in light of the pending appeal have asked the court to stay imposition of the order to have the well plugged.
Reporter Christine L. Pratt