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Virginians for Clean Government called on the candidate to return campaign contributions. A Republican Party representative said Ken Cuccinelli did not pick "energy companies over Southwest Virginia."
Thursday, October 3, 2013
A group of far Southwest Virginia landowners say they feel betrayed by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s support of two natural gas companies that they believe are trying to profit from the valuable methane gas that lies beneath their land.
At a news conference Wednesday in Roanoke, Virginians for Clean Government called on Cuccinelli to return the approximately $100,000 in campaign contributions he received from one of the company’s corporate parents.
“He’s supposed to be helping Virginians, not out-of-state corporations,” said Aimee Compton of Russell County.
Kicking off a statewide tour, the newly formed group hopes to bring more attention to what it calls a conflict-of-interest issue involving Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor.
The controversy stems from a series of lawsuits in which landowners contend that two natural gas companies, EQT Production Co. and CNX Gas Co., bilked them out of royalties from methane gas removed from coal seams beneath their land.
Although the state was not a party to the lawsuit, the attorney general’s office became involved to defend the Virginia Gas and Oil Act, which governs such disputes.
In June, a federal judge wrote in an opinion that she was shocked to learn from emails that a lawyer from Cuccinelli’s office involved in the case had been offering assistance to the two gas companies.
Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that CNX is owned by CONSOL Energy, which has contributed more than $100,000 to Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial campaign.
“Ken Cuccinelli talks a lot about fairness, and how he’s in our corner, but I really don’t see that as being the case,” said Matt Skeens of Wise County, one of the six members of Virginians for Clean Government who spoke at Wednesday’s news conference.
A spokeswoman for Cuccinelli’s campaign deferred questions to the Republican Party of Virginia, which pointed out that the organization is supported by billionaire Tom Steyer, an environmental activist who supports Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor.
“Tom Steyer’s latest stunt is based on a false premise: that Ken Cuccinelli sided with energy companies over Southwest Virginia,” read a statement from Garren Shipley, communications director for the Republican Party.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. Ken Cuccinelli has been fighting to fix the coal bed methane situation for years.”
The lawsuits that spawned the controversy are still pending in U.S. District Court in Abingdon, where this week Judge James Jones allowed them to proceed as a class action.
That means that potentially thousands of landowners could seek at least $30 million in royalties that have been held in a state-mandated escrow account.
The crux of the dispute is who gets the proceeds from thousands of wells that were drilled to remove methane gas from coal seams deep below the surface.
In one set of cases, a small group of landowners say they were shortchanged when leasing out gas because the energy companies deducted from royalties the post-production costs of moving and cleaning the product.
The other cases involve a 20-year-old state law allowing energy companies to siphon gas from coal seams without the owners’ permission, and then dump a percentage of the disputed royalties into a closed escrow account until ownership can be decided later.
According to Shipley, Cuccinelli pushed for legislation, which did not advance in the General Assembly, that would have resolved one of the key questions raised by the lawsuits.
“If the solution he put forward in 2011 had been adopted — over the objections of the gas companies — most of the gas royalties stuck in escrow would have been paid out by now,” Shipley said. “Ken Cuccinelli is running for governor now on that same solution, and the same energy companies still oppose it, but that hasn’t stopped Ken from pressing ahead.”
The Bristol Herald Courier contributed information to this report.
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