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A Marcellus Shale case that has nothing to do with fracking p4

10/27/2014 | Real Estate Blog

We have been talking about the different kinds of property rights, particularly mineral rights and the rights to the land above mineral deposits. Pennsylvania is dealing more and more with issues like this now that advances in technology have made the Marcellus Shale easier to tap into. Mineral rights were easy to ignore or to forget about when they were not worth anything. Now, there is a lot of money at stake.

Thanks to a law passed in the 19th Century, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania allowed counties to take undeveloped land as payment-in-kind for unpaid taxes. The county would take title to all of the land, though, from the center of the earth to the heavens — including title to the mineral rights. In some cases, those rights did not belong to the tax debtor; remember, those rights can be severed, and the debtor may have only purchased the land, not the mineral rights, from the previous owner. That owner had no tax debt.

When the county took possession of everything, then, a cloud descended on the title. The unwitting owner of the mineral rights may have sold them again, or he may have transferred title to his descendants. Complications could build up over time without anyone noticing. 

A little digging by a drilling company turned up a problem like this with the title to property in Centre County now owned by a hunt club. In the 19th Century, the land was sold, but the owners retained the mineral rights. The land changed hands a few times over the years until the Depression-era owner could not pay the taxes. The county acquired title — but the county was allowed to take both the land and the mineral rights, the rights that the 19th Century owners had retained.

The county sold the property, including the mineral rights (or so it thought), at a tax sale in 1941. The current owner purchased the property in 1959. When the drilling company showed up in 2008, the hunt club claimed the property rights by virtue of the tax sale.

The heirs of the 19th Century owners disagreed.

We’ll finish this up in our next post.

Source:, “Marcellus Shale gas boom sparks land disputes,” Andrew Maykuth, Sept. 1, 2014