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Cortland clerk fights abusive gas leasing practices

Emma Jacobs
Cortland County Clerk Elizabeth Larkin with a folder of gas drilling leases. Larkin has been turning away gas company documents she doesn't believe have been drafted correctly.

Elizabeth Larkin's a stickler for the letter of the law. That's made her a bulwark against abusive land leasing practices.

Larkin is Cortland's county clerk, and like others across the state, is one of the few people who sees the contracts made between drilling companies and landowners. Leases are considered private contracts, and therefore aren't overseen by any agency at the state level.

As a result, Larkin says she sees companies try to record improper documents all the time, including adding five year extensions to leases that explicitly rule them out.
Preventing false claims

"That would never hold up in court because the original lease was very clear ... to clarify this, the landowners will probably have to take them to court," she says.

Larkin's office in the county courthouse is filled with vintage filing cabinets and stacks of papers.

"As you can see I'm not 'overly staffed', to say the least," she quips.

Larkin makes a special effort to turn away papers that appear to be improper, so that she won't validate them in any way that could give them authority in court. But her staff can't read every document and she knows some false claims will still get through.

Larkin's involved in a complicated dance with the energy companies that have leased two-thirds of Cortland County. As leases expire, drillers bring in documents that they know she will turn away, she says. Drillers then file affidavits arguing that she refused their documents improperly. She turns around and files another affidavit explaining why.

She's met with lawyers from Chesapeake Energy, but says she and the driller haven't come to an agreement on the legality of a number of practices.

"[A gas company] can file an affidavit saying they own the moon - that doesn't mean that it's true," she says.

Legislative backup

Legislation introduced at the end of the last legislative session could provide Larkin and other clerks with some backup. In June, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-125th) introduced a slate of measure to regulate oil and gas leases. Late last month, two of those bills picked up a sponsor in the Senate.

Senator James Seward (R-51st) has signed onto two pieces of legislation that would require that companies communicate to landowners if a gas lease is being extended, changed or sold - and that companies record new leases with the town clerk within 30 days.

Still orphaned is a measure that requires gas companies to explain the risks of leasing in plain English. Another would create a statewide "clearinghouse" within the Department of State to track leases.

Despite the fact that Larkin is a Republican - and a leaseholder herself - she's gotten on board with Democrat Lifton's movement to regulate leasing.

But Lifton, who represents Tompkins County and part of Cortland County, still has to build more support for her bills in order for them to pass the legislature. As part of that effort, she addressed Larkin and her peers at a statewide meeting of New York's county clerks in September.

The measures that have Seward as a co-sponsor will be brought before the state legislature when it reconvenes. It's not clear though that the bills will be able to make it through the Senate, which has been reluctant to take up the hot topic of gas drilling at all.

Former WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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