Debunking The Myths Surrounding Natural Gas Title Washing
How can one’s title be divested if natural gas was not and cannot be the subject of a proper real estate tax assessment?
With the ever-growing potential that Pennsylvania will play a significant role in the United States’ production of natural gas in the 21st Century, more lawsuits are being filed over who owns the rights to the subsurface gas. Generally, such lawsuits involve a dispute between the heirs of the early landowner who recorded a deed that severed the natural gas from the surface estate and one whose chain of title emanates from a tax sale held after the severance was recorded. Several commentators have opined that if the land was “unseated” at the time of the tax sale and the severed subsurface estate was not separately assessed, then the tax sale “washed” the prior recorded severance and passed title of the natural gas to the tax sale purchaser even though the underlying tax assessment was directed solely to the surface estate or other mineral interests.
Pennsylvania federal and state courts alike, including several from the trial courts in north-central Pennsylvania where such “title washing” was purportedly practiced at the turn of the 20th Century, have cast serious doubts on the extent to which severed natural gas titles have been lost or divested by these early tax sales.
This article summarizes Pennsylvania’s real estate tax laws and the historical taxation of natural gas interests. Also, this article discusses the concept of title washing and its proper application to the real estate taxation of natural gas interests. Finally, it addresses how title washing is being misconstrued by commentators and those claiming title via tax sales in order to improperly deprive owners or the heirs and assigns of their severed natural gas interests.
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