Is West Virginia Prioritizing The Past Over The Future?

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West Virginia Governor Jim Justice made one of the most curious gubernatorial moves in recent years recently, when he vetoed a bill that would have directed money to plug the Mountain State’s approximately 4,000 abandoned gas wells.

The bill, which had strong bipartisan support, would have decreased the State’s severance tax on low producing wells and directed other monies to a fund for the plugging of the abandoned ones.

To show how strong support was for the legislation, the House passed the bill 89-11 and the Senate 33-1. At a time when different political camps have difficulty agreeing on anything, the bill was supported by the oil and gas industry, landowners, the West Virginia Farm Bureau, and the environmental community. That kind of agreement from notoriously warring factions is almost unheard of.

Given that level and breadth of support, why did Governor Justice veto the bill? In his veto letter, the Governor objected to the tax rate cut on the low-producing wells and stated that the money to plug the abandoned wells should come from West Virginia’s General Fund. That seems a curious position given the positive environmental goal and the amount of public support.

Some see a nefarious purpose behind the Governor’s move. The “Marcellus Drilling News” suggested that the Governor vetoed the bill as a payoff to his supporters in the coal industry, specifically big coal mine operator Robert Murray. Indeed, last week the Governor signed a bill lowering the tax rate on steam coal used in power plants, but then turned around and rejected a cut in the gas tax rate payable by low producing wells and raising other funds to help clean up West Virginia.

It’s not a pretty picture. At best, the Governor committed political malpractice by blindsiding nearly everyone in the State. At worst, the Governor made a terrible choice to reward certain large coal operators at the expense of the citizens of West Virginia.

This all comes at a time when West Virginia is about to receive a massive $2.5 billion investment in an ethane cracker plant to support the gas industry. How Governor Justice explains his veto to the industry that is plowing money and resources into his economically depressed State will be interesting to watch in the weeks to come.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

Pipelines and Politics

Marcellus Shale Update by Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

The tortured story of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline construction may be coming to an end.  If so, it will end the way it began, mired in controversy and inconsistent with what had been proposed and promised by the developers.

Last Thursday, Energy Transfer Partners announced that it will start shipping natural gas liquids through the pipeline by the end of the year.  That pipeline, however, will look different from what had been expected.  The original plans called for a 16-inch pipeline (Mariner 2X) and a 20-inch pipeline (Mariner 2) that each would run along the same right-of-way as the original Mariner East Pipeline from 1931.  ETP now says it only will construct one pipeline, that will merge an existing 12-inch pipe with certain areas of 16-inch pipe and other areas of 20-inch pipe, and this will be called Mariner East 2.  ETP did not explain why its plans had changed, how much of each size pipe will be used, and why the final route through Delaware and Chester Counties in Pennsylvania will be slightly different than previously stated.

Not surprisingly, local residents and elected officials were not pleased.  Pennsylvania State Senator Andy Dinniman, who has been a longtime critic of the pipeline and has also pointed out instances of ETP’s failure to follow State regulations, released a statement that said in part “the cobbling together of new and antiquated pipelines of varying sizes appears to have the potential for even more safety risks and concerns.”

As Mariner East limps toward the finish line, natural gas prices surged this week to five-year highs.  The early storm combined with low stockpiles to produce spot market prices over $4/Mcf.  With winter still a month away, this should be a good time for the natural gas industry to redouble its efforts to convince the Northeast public about the virtues of the pipeline buildout.  The industry has an excellent case to make, both economically and ecologically.  Stories like Mariner 2 however, put the industry in a deep hole.  It’s hard to convince the public of the environmental benefits when a feature project is recycling antiquated pipe at the last minute without explanation.  If the gas industry wants to thrive in the Marcellus, it might try doing itself a favor and treating the public like the concerned residents most are.

Elsewhere, judicial and administrative rulings affected other Marcellus pipelines.  Last Wednesday, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a temporary halt to a water crossing permit in West Virginia needed to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina.  The Court ruled that two conditions required by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to protect the state’s water quality, including a requirement that the stream crossing must be completed within 72 hours, had not been met.  The three judge panel in Charleston, which in October had issued a similar stay to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, overruled an Army Corps of Engineers grant which was issued following a route change.  This should be worked out without much difficulty, but it adds to the suspicion with which pipeline projects currently are viewed.

Finally, FERC granted the Constitution Pipeline, which would run from Dimock, Pennsylvania to Schoharie County, New York, a two-year extension to complete the project.  The unanimous ruling came from two Democratic commissioners and one Republican commissioner.  The Constitution is much needed and was the source of the original power grab by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo regarding the Section 401 Clean Streams Permit, a power play that has been copied by other activist governors (and in spirit by Premier John Horgan of the Canadian Province of British Columbia).

The ruling may be prophetic.  Just one week after winning reelection, Cuomo is in serious political trouble.  Details of the extraordinary giveaways New York State made to the richest man in the world, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, so that Amazon would locate one of its new headquarters in Long Island City have put Governor Cuomo squarely on the defensive.  From an Upstate New York perspective, Amazon is another case of Upstaters getting taxed heavily and having their industry stymied so that New York State Government literally can give their money away to a multi-billionaire for the benefit of Downstaters.

New York’s natural prices already are rising.  A difficult winter possibly is approaching and New York needs gas, which it may have to import again from Vladimir Putin.  None of this looks good for Governor Cuomo, especially with the 2020 Presidential Election season approaching.  It is possible that the Governor may have to do something that actually helps the Southern Tier and build the pipeline.  This will begin to unlock the Marcellus potential for the benefit of New York, New England and the entire United States.  If so, it means we could be less dependent on the Russian dictator for our energy.  That should strike all of us as a good thing.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.