Putting home first: alumna becomes advocate for hometown
By the time Heidi Kemp ’16, a Belmont County native, enrolled at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, the oil and natural gas boom was already sweeping her hometown in eastern Ohio. Now, as an attorney with Emens & Wolper, she represents landowners in her community as they negotiate with industry officials to lease their land for drilling.
Utica Shale, one of the largest shale formations in the country, lies beneath eastern Ohio and extends throughout the Appalachian Basin into West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Tennessee, and Canada. In Ohio, drilling in the Utica Shale only began relatively recently, in 2011, and has exploded ever since. Last year, the state produced 18 million barrels of crude oil and 1.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—surpassing a new state record—according to the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program (OOGEEP). Overall, Ohio has drilled the fourth highest number of wells in the country, after Texas, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania.
Kemp grew up on a dairy farm, and there are several farms in her family, including her grandfather’s. Yet when the oil and gas boom hit Ohio, many landowners in the region weren’t prepared to deal with the new industry in town.
“I saw my family members going through this process and it was all new to them. Rural communities do business a little bit differently,” she said. “You’re a little bit more trusting, it’s on a handshake kind of thing, and you started to see how people were getting taken advantage of because of their trusting nature.”
Although Kemp went to law school specifically to become an estate planner, she took any classes she could that pertained to the oil and natural gas industry, knowing that if she achieved her goal of moving back home to Belmont County to practice law, navigating the oil and natural gas industry would have to be part of her practice.
As a student, she spent a year clerking with Emens & Wolper Law Firm and a summer with Dinsmore & Shohl, where she received an offer to work in their trusts and estates department. After seven months with Dinsmore, Kemp was approached by Beatrice Wolper, one of Emens & Wolper’s founding partners, to head their new satellite office in St. Clairsville, closer to Kemp’s family in Belmont County. She couldn’t resist.
In St. Clairsville, Kemp and her colleagues split their time between representing landowners and estate planning. She is one of the few attorneys at the firm whose caseload overlaps both fields.
Before the oil and natural gas boom hit eastern Ohio, many landowners were reluctant to open up their property to drilling. But now, as more are starting to lease out their land to oil and natural gas developers—and beginning to collect substantial checks as a result—they are turning to Kemp to better control their assets, to help transfer their wealth to their children, or to ensure that their property stays within the family.
“I’m assisting with oil and gas issues, but a lot of the time that leads into the estate planning, where maybe a family needs to or wants to create an LLC and be able to pass that on to their children and various things,” she said. “They’re not really two separate practices anymore, at least in this area.”
Before landowners receive any royalties from an oil or natural gas company, they have to negotiate a fairly complicated lease agreement with the company first. Many landowners don’t realize that they have any bargaining power during this process, Kemp said, including the terms of the lease and how much they’re compensated. Others may get tripped up over whether the easements, pipelines, or water lines proposed for their property are permanent or temporary. And because state law is still developing in regards to oil and natural gas, many courts are still examining individual leases on a case-by-case basis instead of issuing more generalized rulings, she adds, so it is critically important for the language of the leases to be both landowner-friendly and clearly written.
Unlike estate planning, negotiating with oil and natural gas companies is much less black and white, Kemp said. No two cases are the same, and there’s not always continuity. It’s common for Kemp to negotiate leases for two different landowners with the same oil and gas company, only to have the company agree to the terms of one lease, but not the other. And when the royalty checks come rolling in to landowners, her job is far from over.
“We’re starting to see people get their statements with their checks from the oil and gas companies, and we have to try to make sure the companies are complying with their lease,” Kemp said. “Each leg of the well is a unit, so there are usually several landowners within a unit. Each of them may have negotiated a different lease. That’s turning into a policing of the oil and gas industry to make sure they’re complying with the terms of an individual landowner’s lease.”
As oil and natural gas continues to expand throughout Ohio and develop as a mainstay industry, Kemp said the need for capable lawyers to represent landowners is higher than ever. Many firms in eastern Ohio especially are starting to add oil and natural gas cases to their purview.
“Landowners in this area need as many competent oil and gas attorneys as they can get to really help them out. They just don’t have the bargaining power, although they have more than they think they do, but it’s difficult,” she said. “Very often, in each stage of the process of an oil and gas deal, you need assistance throughout the whole process. I truly got into this business to help people and am thrilled to be able to do that in my hometown with Emens & Wolper.”