Loopholes: Oil and gas boom prone to old tricks

Fool me once, shame on you. But fool me twice, shame on me, as the old saying goes. Lawmakers and judges have tried hard not to let West Virginia’s most recent extraction-industry boom become a “fool me twice” situation.

There were warnings everywhere as a new oil and natural gas boom promised a wave of riches to West Virginians struggling amid the decline of the coal industry. Don’t let this become another round of exploitation, in which out-of-state corporations reaped the riches of our great state’s resources, while the people of West Virginia watched all that money whoosh right out of their grasp, Mountain State residents pleaded with their legislators.

Companies promised this time would be different. And some companies have kept that promise.

But others have returned as best they could to business as usual. And, as usual, West Virginians are paying for it.

A jury recently ordered natural gas producer EQT Corp. to pay Ritchie County residents Arnold and Mary Richards $192,000 in post-production costs that had been deducted from their royalty payments. U.S. District Judge Irene Keeley had previously told EQT it had to pay the Richardses nearly $43,000 in taxes that had been deducted from payments.

That is a total of $235,000 EQT had been withholding from the couple, though the Richardses say (and a jury and a judge agreed) no language warning of them of such deductions was written into their lease agreement.

Arnold Richards, a former DuPont Washington Works employee, had spent decades also working his farm and trying to squirrel away money here and there to be able to own the rights that were eventually part of the agreement with EQT.

“It’s not because I don’t have enough money to live on. I do,” he testified. “I really worked hard all these years to get it, not pass it on to a corporation.”

And he is one of thousands of Mountain State residents waking up to the fact that they must hire attorneys and (again) dive into the legal system to get what was promised to them.

Remember, hundreds of millions of dollars in court-ordered settlement payouts have not been enough to scare some companies away from such tactics. Lawmakers will have another opportunity in the upcoming legislative session to seek other means of ensuring oil and natural gas companies understand they are not being given free range to abuse West Virginians this time around. They must leave no stone unturned — no loophole still open.