The case — which involves potentially hundreds of landowners and millions of dollars — pits several landowners against two of Virginia’s largest producers of natural gas pumped from coal seams, which is known as coal-bed methane. CNX Gas, which operates as a subsidiary of Consol Energy, produces more than 54 percent of Virginia’s coal-bed methane. EQT Production produces about 35 percent.
The landowners argue that the companies, despite a 2004 Virginia Supreme Court ruling that sought to clarify the ownership rights to coalbed methane, continued to dispute the landowners’ claims and instead deposited a portion of the disputed royalties into escrow.
But the companies also say they have accurately calculated and paid all of the required royalties. And they assert that the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling did not resolve the conflict over the royalties between classes of landowners.
As a result, the companies say they have had no choice under the 1990 Virginia Gas and Oil Act and rulings by the Virginia Gas and Oil Board that require them to put one-eighth of the disputed royalties into escrow.
The landowners also hope to press their claims as a class-action lawsuit, saying they would have a fairer chance in court than if each landowner has to battle the energy companies alone. The companies have resisted, arguing that some conflicting claims are so tangled that each deserves its own airing.
The attorney general’s assistance came to light in an 85-page opinion issued last week by U.S. Magistrate Judge Pamela Meade Sargent, who was analyzing whether to certify the dispute as a class action.
In a series of e-mails, Senior Assistant Attorney General Sharon M. B. Pigeon collaborated with attorneys representing the energy companies. In one thread, Pigeon highlighted a procedural defect that would allow the companies to seek dismissal of a plaintiff’s case.
“Shockingly, these emails show that the Board, or at least Pigeon, has been actively involved in assisting EQT and CNX with the defense of these cases, including offering advice on and providing information for use on the Motions currently before the court,” Sargent wrote.
Attorney General spokesman Brian Gottstein said Thursday that Pigeon’s communications with the energy companies were appropriate, although her tone in the emails might at times have been “overzealous.”
An employee at the Inspector General’s office, in an e-mail to Puckett, acknowledged that the office was looking into it. The office has not returned several calls seeking comment.