There’s a new controversy brewing - one that could mean trouble for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. It involves a lawsuit on behalf of landowners in Southwestern Virginia.
They claim two energy companies failed to pay them royalties on methane gas wells. One of those firms has given $100,000 to Cuccinelli’s campaign - and now a judge in the case says she’s shocked by e-mails from the attorney general’s office to those energy companies. Sandy Hausman reports on the history of the case.
Methane gas was long considered a nuisance and a possible danger - something that could cause explosions and kill coal miners, so companies tried to vent the stuff off wherever possible, but in the early 80’s, mining firms realized the gas could be captured and sold.
“So all of a sudden, what was a waste product and a danger became more valuable than the coal itself, and the question was who owned. The coal companies said we own it, but courts have ruled that the landowner owns it.” That’s Don Barrett, an attorney who led the legal fight against big tobacco. Now, he’s the lead lawyer in a suit filed by property owners who leased land to a couple of energy companies.
“These two companies, CNX and EQT have been cheating mostly small landowners in the four counties in southwest Virginia where they extract the coal bed methane gas. They have not been paying them what they’re supposed. They’ve been stealing it from them since the early 1990’s.”
That’s when the state established the Virginia Gas and Oil Board - a panel that was supposed to assure that landowners were fairly compensated by mining companies. Instead, Barrett says, the board is in bed with industry, and the attorney general is helping out. He subpoenaed e-mails written by an assistant attorney general - Sharon Pigeon - to the energy companies being sued.
“The judge saw that evidence and remarked that she was shocked to find that the assistant attorney general for the state of Virginia is actively engaged in this lawsuit - helping CNX and EQT.
CNX is a subsidiary of Consul Energy - which has given $100,000 to Attorney General Cuccinelli’s campaign for governor. His office issued a statement saying it got involved in this case for the limited purpose of defending the constitutionality of the Gas and Oil Board, but Barrett scoffs, saying that issue was decided 18 months ago, and the assistant attorney general’s e-mails went well beyond a discussion of the board’s legal standing.
“She has done everything that she could do to assist and give advice to CNX and EQT as to how they can win the lawsuit, y’know so you can keep on cheating these small landowners. It’s outrageous, and somebody needs to ask the attorney general:’ Why have you not disciplined Sharon Pigeon?’
The attorney general’s office said assistant AG Pigeon did nothing wrong - simply sharing information, making herself available to answer questions on behalf of the Virginia Gas and Oil Board and helping to interpret the law. Cuccinelli says he wants landowners to get any money to which they are entitled.
Barrett says the lawsuit could mean tens of millions in royalty dollars for 10-15,000 Virginians.