The Battle Between Coal and Gas Rights Continues: Hazard Coal Corp. v. Kentucky West Virginia Gas Co.

This comment was written by former staff member Elizabeth Clevinger and published in JNREL Vol. 20. No. 1. Staff member Tanner James wrote the following abstract.

Coal and natural gas, despite the ongoing debates about their conservation, are undeniably important to modern society's history and future. Landowners of resource-rich property often grant rights of access to those entities that facilitate the extraction and use of these natural fuels. But, on occasion, conflict arises; and, courts must effectively determine the importance of each resource involved.

In Hazard Coal Corp. v. Kentucky West Virginia Gas Co., 311 F.3d 733 (6th Cir. 2002), a property dispute between a coal company and natural gas company resulted in a victory for natural gas—potentially signifying the end of an era of coal dominance. Hazard Coal Corporation owned the mineral property rights of the tract of land in question. Kentucky West Virginia Gas Company held limited rights to run pipelines through the property that would allow access and transportation of their natural gas. After years of conflict-free operation, the plaintiff sought to extract coal from the property in a location that required the natural gas pipelines to be destroyed or relocated at the expense of Kentucky West. When Kentucky West declined, this case came to trial.

Despite finding that the property agreement was violated by Kentucky West, the Court considered equity and policy, finding for the defendant. The equitable notion of acquiescence (e.g., the plaintiff knew or should have known that the defendant was violating the agreement, yet allowed the violation to continue without complaint) prevented the plaintiff from succeeding on claim of breach. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that the Court considered social policy in determining that Kentucky West should not face liability for decisions made by Hazard Coal.

There once was a time when coal was king, and courts used policy considerations to protect the interests of coal companies. If Hazard Coal Corp. v. Kentucky West Virginia Gas Co. is any indication, the pendulum is now swinging away from coal, in favor of other viable fuel resources.