Puckett (D-Russell) said he was troubled because one of the companies, Consol Energy, has contributed more than $111,000 to Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial campaign. In an e-mail to the inspector general, Puckett urged the office to determine whether the attorney general’s office violated any laws or ethics policies.
Cuccinelli (R) and the companies have denied any wrongdoing. As the state’s legal counsel, Cuccinelli said his office properly intervened only to defend the underlying Virginia Gas and Oil Act against arguments by the landowners’ attorneys that the 1990 law could be unconstitutional. Cuccinelli also rejected the notion that he had taken sides.
“Contrary to some media reports, the gas companies get their legal advice from their own attorneys, not this office,” Cuccinelli said in a statement. “The senior assistant attorney general did communicate with attorneys for the gas companies about the interpretation of the Gas and Oil Act because they shared a common interest with the commonwealth in protecting the law. The gas companies were using the law as their defense in the case, claiming they were following the law when they paid royalties to the property owners.”
Cuccinelli also denied that campaign contributions played a part in his office’s dealings with the energy companies. Cuccinelli, noting that Consol Energy has given to many lawmakers’ campaigns, said he and the company saw differently on a mining bill the company lobbied for in 2012.
“Our job in this case and others is to defend Virginia laws, regardless of who stands to benefit,” Cuccinelli said.
But Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe’s campaign dubbed the issue Cuccinelli’s “brand new scandal,” and former attorney general Mary Sue Terry, a Democrat, called the intervention “totally inappropriate and wrong.”
The legal dispute involves perhaps hundreds of landowners and millions of dollars in escrow. An escrow account — which includes the disputed natural gas royalties and others — totaled $27.9 million May 31, a spokesman for the attorney general said.
The controversy pits several landowners against two of Virginia’s largest producers of natural gas pumped from coal seams, which is known as coal-bed methane.
Until about 30 years ago, methane produced and trapped in coal seams was vented into the atmosphere during mining operations. But with advances in technology allowing companies to capture coal-bed methane, a novel web of questions arose as to its ownership. Would it belong to the owner of the coal seam? Or the surface landowner where the well is located? And what if someone sold the rights to the coal — would that mean the rights to the coal-bed methane were also sold?