Controversial gas lease provision for companies invalidated

NORWICH – Good news came last week to lease holders locked into older, low-paying contracts with natural gas companies when a federal judge invalidated natural-gas giant Chesapeake Energy and Denver-based Inflection Energy’s lease extension claims under a provision called force majeure.

The companies had contended that the clause was triggered because New York has not allowed high water-volume hydraulic fracturing since launching an environmental review in 2008. Force majeure, included in many standard contracts, generally allows an agreement to be extended in the event of an “act of God” or unforeseen circumstances that don’t allow its terms to be upheld.

“The leases terminated at the conclusion of their primary terms, and defendants cannot invoke the force majeure clause nor the doctrines of impossibility or frustration of purpose to extend the leases,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge David Hurd. In separate but similar decisions, the rulings will immediately end the gas leases for at least 65 landowners in Tioga and Broome counties when they file the decision with their county clerks. The companies have 30 days to appeal.

Chenango County’s most prominent natural gas developer, Norse Energy Inc., invoked the provision in January 2011 after then Gov. Paterson signed an executive order banning hydrofracking until the state Department of Environmental Conservation completed a comprehensive review. The process – also known as “fracking” – is under scrutiny because of its alleged harmful effects on underground drinking water and the environment, although industry leaders have insisted it’s safe.

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