Linda Stimmell gets upset every time EQT Corp.’s checks arrive in the mail. The energy giant extracts natural gas from beneath the Stimmell family’s old farm in Doddridge County, West Virginia, under the terms of a lease signed when Teddy Roosevelt was president.
The royalty checks Stimmell receives from two “Bates Wells,” named for her great-great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Bates, amount to just $9 and $3 each quarter.
The lease Bates signed more than a century ago with Carnegie Natural Gas Co. of Pittsburgh allowed legendary industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s company to drill for, produce and sell as much natural gas as Carnegie wanted. In exchange, Bates got a flat fee of $300 a year per well.
Because of that deal, Stimmell and the many other Bates descendants who have since inherited the gas — and that 112-year-old lease — have received tens of thousands of dollars less than they would have if the contract were negotiated today.
“They’ve paid pennies, compared to what they are making,” Stimmell said. “It’s ridiculous.”
It’s not clear how many West Virginians are stuck with old leases that pay residents a fraction of what they might otherwise get. Observers guess it’s in the thousands. But what is clear is that thousands more could find themselves getting far less in royalties, if at least one major gas company gets its way.
That’s because of a recent lawsuit filed by EQT — the state’s second-largest gas producer — that threatens to put far more people in Linda Stimmell’s situation, stuck with tiny monthly payments at a time when the natural gas industry is booming.
The lawsuit, filed in April, challenges a 1982 law that aimed to give gas owners a bigger share of the profits. That law applied to situations where the gas lease was an old flat-fee arrangement and the well was drilled after the law took effect. In order to get a state permit for such wells, gas companies would have to pay the gas owners at least 12.5 percent of the revenue from the gas.
EQT lawyers argue that the company invested time and money on leases, betting financially that, eventually, more modern drilling techniques would fuel skyrocketing production in West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale gas fields.
“It was entirely foreseeable that, over time and with investment, mineral extraction technology and related infrastructure would continue to improve, new technologies would develop, and the market for natural gas would grow,” the company maintained in its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Clarksburg.
EQT wants a federal judge to throw out the entire 1982 statute. The company declined to comment on the lawsuit beyond its court filings.
A victory for the company could shift millions of dollars in gas royalties from West Virginia residents and businesses to out-of-state gas producers like EQT, a politically connected company with a board member, Bray Cary, who is a top adviser to Gov. Jim Justice.
So far, the Justice administration is fighting the EQT lawsuit. Lawyers for the state have asked for it to be dismissed, citing the state’s interest in preventing the gas industry from “continuing to capitalize on older, flat-rate leases that provided unforeseen windfall profits in the modern natural gas marketplace.”
Tom Huber, president of the West Virginia Royalty Owners Association, said the company’s lawsuit shows that “EQT’s greed knows no limits.”
“They are determined to suck every bit of gas they can out of our state and pay us next to nothing for it,” Huber said. “EQT wants us to starve so they can please their Wall Street investors.”
Linda Stimmell’s natural gas story starts on Sept. 17, 1906, when her grandfather’s grandfather signed a lease that gave the rights to oil and gas under a 150-acre tract of land in Doddridge County to Carnegie Natural Gas.
The company drilled two wells there shortly afterward. A century later, both are still producing, even if just a trickle of gas in today’s market. Equitable Resources, EQT’s former name, took the wells over in 1999, when it acquired Carnegie Natural Gas. The lease lasts forever, or at least as long as the wells are active.
Stimmell inherited part of the gas rights from Bates, her great-great-grandfather on her father’s side, but she’s not sure exactly what her share is, or how many of her distant relatives, all descendants of Bates, are co-owners.
Situations like Stimmell’s aren’t that unusual in West Virginia.
Land ownership is often complex and confusing. Someone might own the surface land, while someone else owns the the coal, oil or gas underneath. Tracts such as natural gas reserves become divided among multiple owners, as land and mineral rights are passed down across generations.
In Stimmell’s case, Bates split his gas and other holdings among his five children. They split what they inherited among their children, and so on. After a couple of generations, what began as a one-half ownership turns into a one-twentieth share.
Stimmell didn’t pay attention to any of this until 1996, when her father died and she inherited part of the Bates mineral holdings. Her dad, George B. Swiger, worked more than 40 years for Hope Gas, as a maintenance man who helped residential customers with gas connections for their stoves, furnaces and hot-water tanks.
“My father retired from Hope Gas, and he always told me, don’t trust the gas companies,” Stimmell said. “I thought nothing about any of this stuff until he passed away.”
Stimmell soon learned. Her checks certainly weren’t making her rich, but her life seemed to become consumed by skirmishes with various gas companies.
Some West Virginians have gotten wealthy from the natural gas boom, the mineral rights under an old family farm turning them into “Marcellus millionaires.”
But Stimmell’s experience is just as common, and it reflects what some state residents who own land or minerals in the state’s gas-producing region go through: One company quibbled with her about the specific location for a gas line she requested to a cabin she kept on the old family property when she moved to Morgantown. Another wanted to wrestle with her over a right-of-way to build its new gas transmission pipeline.
There were periodic requests to amend her family’s leases to allow the gas company to reach more reserves. The industry says these are efforts to “modernize” leases. But those kinds of requests seldom include an offer to increase royalty payments to a more modern rate. Stimmell’s mail became an endless string of paperwork, much of it almost impossible to really understand.
And one thing is certain: As long as EQT holds her lease, and keeps producing even a little gas from it, she can’t work out a deal for some other company to drill a different well into a different gas formation — perhaps the Marcellus — and pay her larger royalties. It’s a common problem for some West Virginians in gas counties. Wells are “held by production,” allowing companies to avoid having to pay the costs to shut down and plug an old well, or just to stave off competition from some other company.
There once was hope for Stimmell, during a mid-2000s lawsuit over natural gas royalties.
Flat-rate leases are “void and unenforceable,” Roane County Circuit Judge Thomas C. Evans III had ruled, citing the legislative findings from the 1982 law.
“To enforce such a contract term under these circumstances would require this court to perpetuate oppression and injustice, in violation of the clear public policy of this state,” Evans ruled in August 2006.
But Evans didn’t offer gas owners like Stimmell any relief — no court order or statewide injunction. West Virginia lawmakers hadn’t provided any remedy, either.
Lawmakers in 1982 applied the law only to future gas wells, those that needed new permits from the state. They were trying to stay within the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits public officials from interfering with private contracts unless there is a compelling public interest.
Lawyers representing gas owners in royalty cases have never tried to get a court to order higher royalties for pre-1982 wells. They, too, worry that the Contracts Clause would stand in their way.
Meanwhile, the 12.5 percent required by that 1982 law itself is growing outdated. As demand for natural gas increases, gas producers routinely pay as much as 16, 18 or even 20 percent royalties when they negotiate new leases for the right to drill.
Years ago, Stimmell was surfing the internet, trying to educate herself about gas leases, and she came across David McMahon, a lawyer and founder of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.
McMahon, in a recent legal brief, cited Stimmell as an example of what might become more commonplace if EQT wins its lawsuit to throw out the 1982 law that requires royalties of 12.5 percent for newly drilled wells.
That law doesn’t help Stimmell, because her wells were drilled before 1982. But McMahon used the numbers from her well to show how paying a 12.5 percent royalty — rather than a flat fee — helps other gas owners with new wells.
If EQT had paid Stimmell and other Bates heirs 12.5 percent — one-eighth is the way the law expresses it — since 1982, McMahon wrote, they would have received $71,000 over that time. Instead, they received $22,000 from their flat-rate lease.
The difference would be far greater in situations in which EQT and other companies have drilled horizontal wells that can access far more gas. A modern well can produce about $7.1 million worth of gas a year and, with a 12.5-percent royalty rate, generate royalties worth more than $887,000 annually, McMahon wrote, citing one example.
If the companies were able to revert to leases paying $300 a year, they would collect “a windfall,” McMahon wrote, “depriving landowners in this state of income vital to their fortunes and families and the state’s economy — a windfall that the state has a legitimate interest in preventing.”
Even paying 12.5 percent is a good deal, he said. “They get to keep the other seven eighths.”
EQT argues in its lawsuit that those old leases “apportioned the risk according to each party’s preference at the time.” Gas owners would receive a reliable payment for gas development, regardless of how much gas was eventually produced. Producing companies would have “the incentive to invest in improving natural gas extraction, production and marketing.”
“Making such investments is exactly what EQT has done,” the EQT lawsuit says. “Over the better part of a century, EQT has invested millions of dollars to improve techniques for extracting natural gas and for infrastructure to develop an integrated market for natural gas.”
EQT says it should be able to “enjoy the returns of such investments,” without state lawmakers interfering with its leases.
During previous major cases over gas royalties, the two trade associations that represent the gas industry filed friend of the court briefs on the company’s side. This time, however, industry groups have stayed out of the case. EQT has said in court documents that flat-rate leases represent “a relatively small percentage of all leases in West Virginia,” but that it believes it holds the greatest number of them.
Some of EQT’s competitors say that getting rid of the flat-rate statute isn’t a priority for them.
“It just didn’t feel like the spirit of what we were trying to do with these legacy leases in West Virginia,” said Al Schopp, a regional senior vice president and spokesman for Antero Resources, the state’s largest gas producer.
Stimmell said she worries about the day when EQT might show up and want to drill a Marcellus well on the Bates lease. If EQT wins its current lawsuit, her six grandchildren would be stuck sharing a $300 per year flat payment — not a percentage cut of the millions of dollars a modern well could generate.
“I’ve always said I’m not against drilling,” Stimmell said. “But I am for the people — the mineral owners and the surface owners — to be paid a fair price.”
Ken Ward Jr. covers the environment, workplace safety and energy, with a focus on coal and natural gas, for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kenwardjr.
This article was originally published by ProPublica.