Connect with us

The New Power Brokers

He is West Virginia’s Speaker of the House — and a Lawyer for Natural Gas Companies

Published

on

Delegates give newly elected West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, a standing ovation following an August vote elevating him to the position. Photo: Chris Dorst, Charleston Gazette-Mail

State ethics rules seldom prevent lawmakers from proposing or voting on legislation that affects industries they work for.

This article was produced in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Toward the end of this year’s legislative session, a little-noticed bill was moving through the West Virginia House of Delegates to limit legal challenges that had slowed new natural gas-fired power plants in the state.

Delegate Roger Hanshaw, a Republican lawyer from Clay County who was serving as vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, took to the floor to explain the legislation.

“This bill is a little inside baseball to practitioners of environmental law in West Virginia,” explained Hanshaw, a supporter of the bill.

It wasn’t the first time that Hanshaw engaged in some pretty effective legislative inside baseball on energy bills.

Last year, Hanshaw engineered passage of a bill that gave natural gas companies a broad exemption from chemical tank safety standards that West Virginia put in place after a 2014 spill that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 people.

Hanshaw was elected speaker in late August, succeeding Tim Armstead, who is now a justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court. Hanshaw is expected to be re-elected speaker in January. In the position, Hanshaw wields significant control over which bills are called up for votes and which are sent to committees to effectively die.

When he’s not in the state Capitol, Hanshaw makes his living as an attorney with the Charleston-based firm Bowles Rice, where his clients have included natural gas companies and gas industry lobby groups.

Over the last three years, he has represented the operator of a Fayette County natural gas waste disposal site in legal battles with state regulators and nearby landowners. He argued its case before the state Environmental Quality Board and the state Supreme Court. Then, he filed a brief on behalf of two industry groups when the case went to a federal appeals court.

Under the state’s ethics laws, those overlapping interests aren’t enough to keep Hanshaw from voting on matters affecting the industry, including the bill to help stop coal-funded legal challenges to power plants.

Legislative controversies over natural gas have grown in recent years as the industry’s production has greatly expanded. Hanshaw illustrates both the industry’s increasing ties to lawmakers and how West Virginia ethics laws sometimes leave state residents in the dark about such potential conflicts.

West Virginia’s ethics laws allow legislators to vote on matters that would benefit themselves, their businesses and their clients. In fact, a House policy, known as Rule 49, forces them to vote, so long as at least four others also stand to benefit.

In February, for instance, more than a dozen delegates were ordered to vote on a bill to make it easier for gas companies to assemble larger mineral tracts for drilling, despite asking to be excused because of potential conflicts. One of those lawmakers is the in-house counsel for a gas company.

A ProPublica and Charleston Gazette-Mail review found that over the past five years, the House speaker approved just 14 of 245 delegate recusal requests, a rejection rate of 94 percent.

Speaker Roger Hanshaw Photo: West Virginia Legislature

Hanshaw’s financial disclosure, filed with the state Ethics Commission, makes no mention of his connections to the natural gas industry. It lists his employer as Bowles Rice and describes his work as the “private practice of law.”

Hanshaw says he’s able to separate his legal practice from his work as a lawmaker, even when the interests overlap. In an interview in mid-November in his Capitol office, he said that the natural gas industry represents less than half of his legal practice, and that the work focuses mostly on advising clients about financial transactions or regulatory compliance rather than litigation.

“I represent whoever comes through the door.”


Hanshaw isn’t the only legislator with experience in West Virginia’s oil and gas business. He’s not even the only one at his own law firm.

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, also is a partner at Bowles Rice. His practice areas include “oil and gas litigation,” according to the law firm’s website.

Palumbo has litigated against landowners on behalf of gas producers, work that drew attention two years ago when he was the co-sponsor of an unsuccessful bill to make it harder for residents to sue gas companies for damaging their property.

Palumbo said recently that he doesn’t remember a lot of the details of that legislation or exactly how he came to co-sponsor it. But he said that he represents a wide range of businesses in litigation, and that gas companies make up less than half of his practice.

“Everyone is sort of shaped by who they are and what they do,” Palumbo said. “I’m someone who represents business, and that shapes my views sometimes.”

Palumbo said he doesn’t make legislative decisions based on what would make businesses, including his clients, happy. “I just try to do what’s right,” he said.

More than a dozen lawmakers who served during the 2018 regular session listed some financial connection to the gas industry on their annual disclosure forms filed with the state Ethics Commission. Delegate Moore Capito, a Kanawha County Republican, for example, reported on his financial disclosure that he is an in-house counsel for Greylock Energy, a gas company.

So should those lawmakers be voting on gas industry legislation?

“I think the obvious answer to your question is no; legislators shouldn’t be voting on issues that affect their own business interests,” said Julie Archer, project manager for the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, which advocates for stronger government ethics standards. Archer said that West Virginia’s Ethics Act “seems pretty clear” that lawmakers should recuse themselves, but “it also gives them a lot of wiggle room” to vote anyway.

Part of the issue is that West Virginia has a citizen Legislature, like 40 other states, in which lawmakers keep their day jobs but come to Charleston for 60 days a year and a few days each month.

One major strength of such arrangements is that members with different backgrounds can use their varying areas of expertise and experiences to help educate colleagues as they go through the process of making laws.

For example, Democratic state Sen. Mike Romano, a lawyer from Harrison County, uses his past experience as an accountant in the gas industry to grill lobbyists about gas leasing and royalty bills.

Yet, Romano says he sees a clear problem with lawmakers who work in the gas industry voting on legislation that affects that industry. “That presents a clear conflict of interest,” he said.

Some conflicts, though, aren’t even disclosed. Lawmakers who are lawyers like Hanshaw don’t have to identify their clients, even if they represent parties that have vested interests in the outcomes of particular bills. The state Ethics Commission has never considered requiring those details, the agency’s executive director said.

Romano and Palumbo both said they believe requiring some kind of disclosure, such as general practice area or large clients, would be a good idea. “The more people know, the better choices they can make at the ballot box,” Romano said.

In written responses to questions from the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica, Hanshaw initially dismissed the idea, saying forcing lawyers to identify clients would violate legal ethics rules.

In the mid-November interview, however, Hanshaw conceded that some types of information about clients, such as when lawyers handle litigation, are a matter of public record that could be disclosed in Ethics Commissions filings. He said there are ways to let the public know what kind of law an attorney practices and generally what kinds of clients attorney-legislators have.

Hanshaw said that West Virginians have “a heightened interest” in government ethics rules this year in the wake of a spending scandal that prompted the impeachment of four state Supreme Court justices and the resignation of the fifth. (Two of the justices remain on the court.)


More than four decades ago, lawmakers in the West Virginia House of Delegates set a strong standard for themselves, aimed at preventing conflicts of interest from affecting their legislative votes.

In 1975, House members approved Rule 49, which said that any member “with a personal or private interest” in a bill was required to announce that interest and not vote.

Two years later, though, legislators watered the rule down. Instead of prohibiting members from voting on matters in which they had an interest, they would be told not to vote only if the matter affected them “directly and not as one of a class.”

In 2017, the rule was amended to define a class as five or more similarly situated people.

The way the rule has been interpreted in recent years, delegates are seldom ever excused from voting.

Take, for example, the February vote on the bill to make it easier for gas companies to force unwilling gas owners to allow drilling on their property.

More than a dozen House members said they had a conflict and asked to be excused from voting.

Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, was the first to ask. He said his father owned one-one hundred sixtieth of some gas reserves and he might eventually benefit from the bill when he inherits that gas.

Then-Speaker Armstead, R-Kanawha, ruled that Shott did not stand to benefit any more than anyone else and told Shott he had to vote. (Lawmakers do not have the ability to abstain from votes in West Virginia.)

A parade of other delegates followed with their own requests not to vote.

Some were like Shott. They owned some small piece of a natural gas tract that might be made more accessible to drilling if the bill passed. Some had existing gas leases they felt might become more lucrative.

Others, like Capito, worked directly for a gas company. Capito said he always asks for a Rule 49 exemption from voting on oil and gas bills “in an abundance of caution.”

Armstead made them all vote. The bill passed on a 60-40 vote. The 20-vote margin meant recusals wouldn’t have swayed things either way. Some of those who asked to be excused voted against the bill, while some voted for it.

Hanshaw was not among those who asked for a Rule 49 exemption, because he said he did not believe his legal work for the gas industry was a conflict with that bill. He voted for the bill.

As the natural gas bill illustrates, Rule 49 seldom results in members not voting on legislation where they may have a conflict of interest.

“It’s rare,” House Clerk Steve Harrison said. “One of the things about having a citizen Legislature is that there are so many bills that are going to affect the person or affect the business that there is an interest there, but it is almost always as a member of a class.”

A bill that affects only a business owned by a delegate would be an example of a conflict that qualifies for being excused from voting, Harrison said.

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, worries that lawmakers who are employed by certain industries might “naturally take cues from those industries on policy decisions.”

She thinks the system needs to be changed.

“The issue seems magnified in West Virginia because there are so many political ties to industries now seeing profit benefits from the rollbacks of various regulations,” she said.


Just as Hanshaw is not the only West Virginia legislator with ties to the gas industry, the gas industry is not the only politically powerful sector with links to lawmakers. The chairman of the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee is a coal mine manager, in charge of safety at a Mettiki Coal operation. The House Democratic whip is a United Mine Workers of America union official. Other lawmakers work in the insurance business, as teachers, or run auto parts stores or funeral homes.

But the Ethics Commission has found that being speaker of the House is different from being a rank-and-file lawmaker. While “certain conflicts of interest are inherent in part-time service” as a lawmaker, it has said, the presiding officer “has an even higher duty” to the citizens of the state. The speaker, for example, controls committee assignments and agendas, as well as the House floor agenda.

Commissioners examined the issue in 2012, when then-Speaker Rick Thompson, a Democrat, sought their approval to take a new outside job as a lawyer for the West Virginia Education Association, a powerful teachers’ union.

This arrangement was too much, as far as the commissioners were concerned. They said it presented an “inescapable conflict” for a House speaker to also work for a lobbying group. They also ruled that, because Thompson had been speaker for several years at that point, the job offer might appear to the public like the association was hiring him “because of his unique ability to influence legislation.”

Hanshaw says his situation is distinct from Thompson’s and more closely mirrors that of Armstead, his predecessor.

Armstead had been a House member since 1998 when, in 2014, the Republicans won a majority and elected him speaker. But Armstead was also an in-house lawyer for Columbia Gas Transmission, a pipeline company. He worked mostly in the company’s commercial division, and mostly on issues outside West Virginia.

Ethics commissioners said Armstead could continue to be speaker and hold his job because he had held the gas company job for more than a dozen years.

“That is me,” Hanshaw said. “I was a lawyer at our firm before I was ever elected to the House at all.”


With a doctorate in chemistry from Notre Dame, experience litigating over environmental issues and certification as a parliamentarian, Hanshaw has a leg up on many citizen legislators in navigating the lawmaking system. Like Romano’s inside knowledge of the gas business, Hanshaw said his experience can help on issues involving science or regulatory matters.

In 2014, the year Hanshaw was elected to the House, a chemical storage tank just upstream from the regional drinking water intake in Charleston leaked into the Elk River, contaminating the supply and prompting a “do not use” order that lasted up to a week for some residents. In response, both houses of the Legislature unanimously passed a tough bill adding new safety rules for aboveground storage tanks around the state.

Starting in 2015, as the water crisis faded, various industry groups tried to have the law revisited. The state’s growing oil and gas industry complained the loudest.

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw makes a point during a Judiciary Committee meeting in 2017, when he was the lead sponsor of legislation rolling back chemical tank safety regulations for the natural gas industry. Photo: Kenny Kemp, Charleston Gazette-Mail

In 2017, Hanshaw introduced a bill to give oil and gas operations a broad exemption from the bill.

After the bill passed, Hanshaw was one of three lawmakers honored as “Champions of Industry” by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.

In an interview, Hanshaw said he introduced the bill because three small oil and gas companies in his district raised concerns about the chemical tank regulations.

None of the companies was a client, Hanshaw said. And even if they had been, he said, he doesn’t get into discussions with clients about legislation that might help them.

“I don’t let people come in here and talk about business,” he said. “And I don’t let people come to my daytime job and talk about the Legislature.”

ProPublica news applications developer Derek Willis contributed to this report.

Kate Mishkin and Ken Ward Jr. cover the environment, workplace safety and energy, with a focus on coal and natural gas for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Email Kate at kate.mishkin@wvgazettemail.com and follow her on Twitter at @katemishkin; email Ken at kward@wvgazettemail.com and follow him on Twitter at @kenwardjr.

The New Power Brokers

Century-Old West Virginia Leases Yield Paltry Gas Royalties. A Suit Could Cut Others’ Payouts to a Trickle, Too.

Published

on

LindaStimmell
Linda Stimmell has many folders full of correspondence and other documents about her dealings over the years with natural gas companies. Photo: Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail

This article was produced in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

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.

DavidMcMahon

David McMahon, lawyer and founder of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization Photo: Kenny Kemp/Charleston Gazette-Mail

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 kward@wvgazettemail.com and follow him on Twitter at @kenwardjr.

This article was originally published by ProPublica

Continue Reading

The New Power Brokers

‘Jobs Alliance’ Backed by Coal Giant Loses Bid to Stop West Virginia Natural Gas Plant

Published

on

The gas industry’s growth has largely come at the expense of the state’s coal industry, and some coal loyalists like Murray Energy founder and CEO Robert E. Murray have spoken against the continued growth of gas. Photo: Ramin Rahimian/REUTERS

A group backed by Murray Energy has tried to block gas plants in West Virginia. The state Supreme Court rejected arguments against one plant, saying it will help the local economy.

A group funded by coal giant Murray Energy has lost its latest court battle to block construction of new natural gas power plants in West Virginia.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed the state Public Service Commission’s approval of Brooke County Power LLC’s gas plant, turning aside objections by the Ohio Valley Jobs Alliance and saying the plant’s developers had “substantially complied” with state power plant siting rules.

Separately, the jobs alliance appears to have abandoned challenges of gas plant permits issued to the Brooke County Power plant and another in Harrison County. The group’s lawyers did not file appeals of permit approvals prior to the legal deadline for doing so, developers and supporters of the plants said this week.

In September, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica detailed how Murray Energy, one of the nation’s largest coal companies, had been quietly funding the jobs alliance’s litigation aimed at stopping the natural gas power plants proposed for Brooke and Harrison counties and another in Marshall County.

The legal battles come at a time when the state’s natural gas industry is flourishing. Developers of the gas plants say they would put the gas to work locally, generating electricity in West Virginia, rather than piping the fuel out of state. They say the plants would provided more jobs and revenues for West Virginia.

But the gas industry’s growth has largely come at the expense of the state’s coal industry, and some coal loyalists like Murray Energy founder and CEO Robert E. Murray have spoken against the continued growth of gas.

With its legal fees covered at least in part by Murray Energy, the jobs alliance — known locally as the OVJA — has challenged permits issued by the state’s Public Service Commission and the Air Quality Board for the facilities. The OVJA has cited environmental regulations that are similar to those that Robert Murray has railed against when those rules were aimed at coal.

One such legal challenge, aimed at the Moundsville Power plant proposed for Marshall County, was resolved in favor of the developers. But litigation took so long that investors got nervous and the project may not be built, supporters say.

The Brooke County Power plant case was the first to reach West Virginia’s Supreme Court. In its 15-page ruling, the court said that the Public Service Commission should have required Brooke County Power to submit a more detailed analysis of the impacts of tax breaks being given to the project. But the court also said that analysis “is but one small piece of the larger and extremely extensive application.”

“Given the current economic condition of West Virginia and Brooke County, in particular, it is apparent that the project will substantially and positively impact the state and local economies,” the court ruling said.

Drew Dorn, president of Energy Solutions Consortium, the company proposing the Brooke plant, said he was pleased with the court decision.

“We are excited to clear another important hurdle to bring this project and the huge economic benefits it will deliver to West Virginia,” Dorn said in a prepared statement.

Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, a coalition of construction unions whose members would build the gas plants, said he wants construction to start soon.

“We hope this ends the delays caused by unwarranted appeals and that this and other projects can be built as soon as possible,” White said. “With this decision and no further appeals we see a green light to get to work on these projects.”

A lawyer for the OVJA did not respond to a request for comment. A Murray Energy spokesman declined to comment. OVJA leader Jim Thomas has previously said that other than legal fees, Murray Energy does not provide any funding to the group.

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 kward@wvgazettemail.com and follow him on Twitter at @kenwardjr.

This article was published by ProPublica in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Continue Reading

Trending

100 Days

FREE
VIEW