[This piece was originally published in the Charleston Gazette in May of 2017]
After the disastrous ending to WVU’s terrific men’s basketball season, I turned off the TV in disgust. The tape will show that Adrian was fouled. A tournament that had been marred by poor officiating had come to an end for a great West Virginia team.
But while most West Virginians mourned the loss to Gonzaga, a small group of us stayed busy. The Republican-controlled judiciary committee of the State Senate worked into the wee hours last Friday morning. What could have inspired them to stay at work so late, after such a big game?
It wouldn’t be something they wanted to take credit for – if it was that they’d have done it in broad daylight, with TV cameras, ribbon cuttings, and press releases. It must have been something they did not want West Virginians to see. The legislation passed out of committee under cover of darkness, near the dark of the moon, and in the fog of an NCAA tournament hangover.
The bill was, of course, forced pooling. “Forced pooling” has been the apple of the gas companies’ eyes since the shale gas boom began. What is forced pooling? In the simplest terms, forced pooling means that if you own land and the rights to the minerals underneath, and you don’t want to sell, tough. The company can take it.
Once the gas company has made a “reasonable effort to negotiate” with you, they can run you over and take what they want and pay you what someone else thinks is fair. This is done to “[e]ncourage the maximum recovery of oil and gas.” No doubt it will also “encourage the payment of campaign contributions” to the lawmakers who shove it through.
Of course, this doesn’t work in reverse. If the gas company owns something you want, you can’t just make a “reasonable effort to negotiate” with them, and when they won’t give, you get to take it. This forced pooling law passed late at night is a special privilege for the gas companies, not for regular people. This law is their law, it isn’t your law.
What can we say about politicians that give away our most sacred rights to corporations? Didn’t they campaign on the constitution? Aren’t they supposed to be protecting the citizens of this state – the voters who let them have their positions in government? What happened to all that freedom we were supposed to get?
The gas industry has made billions since the shale boom started. The only downside for them appears to be having to deal with the common landowners and negotiate a price before they could drill. If people didn’t want to sell, they didn’t have to, because people used to have rights to do what they wanted with their own property. Some chose to sell, others didn’t – that’s the American Way.
But the American Way isn’t good enough for corporate America – they want it their way, all the way, every time. To get it, they elected a gaggle of Republicans willing to put in laws that let them take what they want from people who don’t want to sell it. The law calls those people “nonconsenting cotenants.”
You used to be a citizen, a landowner, and an American. Now you’re just a “nonconsenting cotenant,” standing in the way of what the gas company wants – your gas. And the gas company will fix you up good – armed with their new law, they take what they want and if you try to stop them, they’ll bring the judge and the sheriff down on top of you.
Our rights to our own property trace their heritage all the way back to England and the Magna Carta. A man’s home was his castle, and as William Pitt put it:
The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold. . .
So much for that. The King of England and William Pitt didn’t know regular people might own valuable shale gas. So now the Kings in Charleston are putting a stop to the “defiant” West Virginians. They are slapping an “open for business” sign on those humble cottages. The new rule is that the powerful gas companies can take what they want from citizens, who are now reduced to the peon-like status of “nonconsenting cotenants.”
The only way to fight this kind of law is at the ballot box. Everybody owns something, even if it’s not valuable mineral rights. The politicians who don’t respect your property can’t be allowed to stay in office – and before anyone asks me, yes, that goes for Democrats as well as Republicans who sign on to this thievery. If they’ll force you to sell your land, nothing you own, and nothing your neighbors own is safe.
Write down the name of every one of them that votes for this bill, and remember it in eighteen months when we get another chance to vote. Then vote against them no matter what. That’s how we can tell the politicians what they need to hear: this land is our land.