Friday, August 30, 2013

Are Ken Cuccinelli’s Ties to Big Energy Hurting Him In Southwest Virginia?

The highly unusual - and I would argue highly improper - intervention of Ken Cuccinelli's Attorney General office in private litigation by residents of southwest Virginia against oil and gas companies may be backfiring on Kookinelli.  While Kookinelli received over $100,000 from the parent company of one of the defendants accused of screwing landowners out of gas royalty payments, it seems that typically Republican voting residents of the region are not all that enamored with Kookinelli.  And rightfully so.  Think Progress looks at the current state of affairs in this backward, GOP voting region of Virginia. The piece also looks at "forced pooling" of leases and mineral rights to permit exploration and production - a practice that has existed in oil and gas producing states for many decades.  Here are exceprts:

In the 2012 elections, Republican Mitt Romney racked up a huge margin over President Barack Obama in the coal mining counties of southwest Virginia. But as Virginia’s inspector general investigates possible improper coordination between Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II’s (R) office and a coal and gas company that has given more than $100,000 to his campaign, a newly released poll suggests that southwest Virginians are far less enthusiastic about the 2013 Republican gubernatorial nominee than any other recent Republican candidate.

At an energy forum Thursday, Cuccinelli delivered a full-throated defense of Virginia’s coal industry and an attack on efforts by government to encourage renewable energy, saying, “government doesn’t pick winners, it picks losers at the taxpayer’s expense.” Despite his claim that he would fight for Virginia families who depend on coal, because he and his office have consistently sided with the companies over ordinary people and the environment, he has also been picking winners and losers.

[T]he most recent poll numbers show McAuliffe with a six point lead. And in one heavily Republican southwest Virginia district won by Romney by 20 points, a newly released Democratic internal poll finds Cuccinelli with just 47 percent support.

A Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2009 series by Daniel Gilbert in the Bristol Herald Courier detailed the problems with this system. With little oversight of the system, energy companies have underpaid the amounts the royalties they owed. The big coal companies, despite not having the gas rights, regularly dispute their ownership in hopes of forcing the landowners to agree to a 50-50 split on the royalties. Many of these landowners cannot afford the costly legal process needed to establish ownership in court and access the escrow funds — if they even know they are entitled to it.

After the stories, State Sen. Phil Puckett (D) authored a 2010 law aimed at reforming the system. Not long after, newly inaugurated Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an advisory opinion finding that the state’s regulatory board still had no new authority to resolve these royalty disputes, a big win for the companies who have continued the practice. Puckett, shocked at the “very disappointing” ruling, responded “I don’t know how you can make it any clearer than what the law says there.”

Cuccinelli would also side with the gas industry in a January 2013 advisory opinion opposing a southwest Virginia county’s attempt to use zoning laws to prohibit hydro-fracking. The fossil fuel industry has been among the most generous backers of Cuccinelli, whose father worked for 17 years for the American Gas Association and was a long-time executive for a natural gas company.

Cuccinelli’s senior assistant attorney general Sharon Pigeon intervened in the case to defend the constitutionality of the state law — but also coordinated with company lawyers on their strategy to oppose the class-action status. U.S. Magistrate Pamela Meade Sargent, after reading the email exchanges between Pigeon and the companies, called the assistant attorney general’s conduct shocking and referred the matter to the Virginia’s inspector general. Pigeon’s emails show she her advice to the companies included strategy on how to take advantage of a paperwork processing glitch to keep one landowner’s case out of court.

Terry McAuliffe, has highlighted the controversy in a series of campaign ads featuring local landowners accusing Cuccinelli of betraying southwest Virginia.   Asked after the energy forum about the Consol contributions, he [Cuccinelli] attempted to suggest that he had actually opposed the company’s interests, then stormed off without offering an explanation.

If Kookinelli doesn't do very well in Southwest Virginia, his chances of winning in November will not be good.   I hope residents of the region continue to figure out that Kookinelli is in fact their enemy.

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