New Castle News

April 12, 2012

District wants own terms in shale lease

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The Wilmington school board has informally decided to move toward leasing district land for Marcellus Shale drilling.

But its members want to do so under the district’s terms.

The board, after discussion at its public work session Monday, agreed 8 -1 in a straw poll to prepare a lease based on terms it wants to have included. Dr. David Swerdlow cast the no vote.

The board has not yet named a specific company it would lease to. Rather, its members intend to work with the solicitor on coming up with concise terms that would benefit and protect the district.

What remains to be seen is whether a drilling company would still be interested in the lease once those terms are decided.

“If the company, whoever it may be, is not interested, then they are not interested,” board member Lynn Foltz said Wednesday.

“We are saying they are not going to dictate the terms to us,” whether it is Shell Oil or CoExprise with whom the district negotiates, she said. “What we’ve done is put the emphasis on our control and not theirs. We want certain terms in it.”

Once a lease would be negotiated, the board still would have to vote publicly on the final document before signing it, she added.

The district has been approached by two companies — an independent landman representing Shell Western Exploration and Productions Inc. and a representative of CoExprise, on behalf of Hilcorp Energy.

Both were urging the district to enter lease negotiations before March 31, but after discussion at a special meeting last month, the board members delayed their decision, wanting more information and more discussion.

A group of residents who attended that meeting emotionally urged the board to look at potential environmental and safety hazards, should drilling be allowed on or near school property.

As a result, the board instructed district superintendent Dr. C. Joyce Nicksick to gather more information about leasing and environmental issues surrounding shale leasing to help them better make an informed decision.

Nicksick recommended to the board Monday that it not sign any lease.

“I came to the conclusion that there is no right or wrong way. I think it becomes a personal decision. And if this were my personal land, I would be able to make that decision,” she said. “But, because it’s not my personal land ... I guess I would rather be known as the superintendent who bankrupted the school district than the superintendent who caused children to get sick in twenty years. So, with that, my recommendation is that we do not sign a lease.”

Subsequently, board member Robert Curry suggested the district should write the lease with its own terms and see if it would be acceptable to any gas companies.

Then Swerdlow made a motion that the district should let voters decide by referendum whether or not it should sign a lease. That motion failed 7 to 2, with Swerdlow and Curry the only ones favoring that idea.

(Email: dmorris@ncnewsonline.com)