A Viral Video Revealed Big Energy's Stranglehold on West Virginia Politics

Apparently state legislators don't like it when you talk about their campaign donations from fossil fuel companies.

Alex Kotch

Lisa Lucas is stopped from speaking at the West Virginia Judiciary Committee hearing. Screencap via YouTube

“Montani semper liberi!”

Those were the last words that West Virginians heard from a resident who, as she commented on proposed state House legislation, was dragged out of a public Judiciary Committee hearing. The Latin phrase, which is also the state motto, means “mountaineers are always free.”

But, apparently, not all mountaineers are free to speak at public legislative hearings.

On February 9, Lissa Lucas, an online media specialist and a 2018 state House candidate, expressed to the committee her concern over a bill called HB 4286 that would allow fossil fuel companies to drill for oil and gas on private land without all of the landowners’ consent. Under this “co-tenancy” law, companies would only need to secure 75 percent of landowners’ approval in order to extract oil or gas from a region, as opposed to the current 100 percent requirement.

“The attack on property rights is an assault on rural people, and it goes against both party platforms,” Lucas had prepared to say at the hearing.

But with only two minutes to speak, she focused on listing campaign donations to committee members from oil and gas companies. Chairman John Shott had a problem with that, accusing Lucas of making “personal comments” as she read this publicly available campaign finance data. When she continued her remarks, Shott had officers remove her from the hearing.

“Living out here [in rural Ritchie County], you hear stories about how people have been bullied into contracts, how gas companies won’t pay proper royalties,” Lucas, who lives on a farm with her husband, told me. “I’m tired of it… I’m sick of seeing my neighbors intruded upon like that.”

The video of Lucas being removed went viral in a way few West Virginia Judiciary Committee hearing events do, with left-leaning outlets like Rolling Stone and The Intercept, which reported that Lucas got a major fundraising boost thanks to the ensuing publicity.

Lucas is challenging incumbent Republican Jason Harshbarger, a member of the Judiciary Committee. Harshbarger’s campaign received $650 from oil and gas interests in late 2016, according to data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The delegate’s financial disclosure shows that he oversees natural gas storage at gas pipeline company Dominion Energy Transmission. Harshbarger and his wife Michelle both earn oil and gas royalties, according to the document.

Harshbarger is far from the only Judiciary Committee member to hold a financial stake in the oil and gas industry. Of the 16 Republicans on the committee—all of whom voted to advance the bill on February 9—seven either work for a fossil fuel-connected company, own shares in oil and gas companies, or both.

Frank Deem owns his own oil and gas company and earns production and drilling income. Moore Capito is corporate counsel and director of land at oil and gas exploration company Greylock Energy. Roger Hanshaw is a lawyer with oil and gas–focused firm Bowles Rice, which boasts on its website that it’s “the go-to firm in the oil and gas industry.” Kayla Kessinger is human resources director at Synergy Sand, a company that provides fracking sand to gas drilling companies. John Overingon and his spouse own stock in multiple oil and gas companies, and Mark Zatezalo, a cosponsor of HB 4286, is invested in NextEra Energy, which invests in natural gas pipelines, including one that will travel through West Virginia.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Bill Anderson, who is not on the Judiciary Committee but chairs the Energy Committee, has investments in several oil and gas companies. His campaigns have received $2,250 from oil and gas interests over the course of his career. House Speaker Tim Armstead, who selects the members of the various committees, earns income from pipeline company Columbia Gas Transmission. Armstead has received $16,300 from oil and gas interests over his long government career.

According to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the campaigns of the 16 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have received a total of $240,000 from the energy and natural resources sector, which is the sector that gives the most money to these members. Oil and gas interests have donated at least $73,000 to these lawmakers, the second-highest industry total. (This figure includes a contribution from the Koch Industries PAC, and does not include contributions from electric utilities.)

Delegate Amy Summers told me that the $5,250 her campaigns have received from oil and gas interests since 2014 has had no impact on her policy decisions. “The co-tenancy bill however allows the majority of people who own a single piece of property to exercise their mineral rights if they so desire,” Summers wrote in an email. “The way the current law reads one person of a single property can prohibit the rights of the majority of ownership to not use their property rights.”

No other delegates responded to my requests for comment.

The biggest recipient of oil and gas donations is Charlotte Lane, who also cosponsored HB 4286. Her campaign has received nearly $17,000 from the industry since 2013, including $5,000 from the Koch Industries PAC. Deem’s campaign has gotten roughly $14,500 from oil and gas interests, including $1,250 from the EQT Corporation. The bill’s sponsors have taken in a combined $28,500 from oil and gas interests.

Here's a table of how much money all the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee and bill sponsors have brought in from the oil and gas industry:

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the industry’s power in West Virginia, Democrats also receive fossil fuel contributions—for example, Barbara Fleischauer and Shawn Fluharty—but all nine on the Judiciary Committee voted against the gas drilling bill.

The industry’s influence isn’t just about campaign donations. Several oil and gas trade associations pay registered lobbyists in the state capital of Charleston. Aside from official meetings with lobbyists, state legislators have ample opportunities to hobnob with industry representatives. In December, Harshbarger’s campaign had a fundraising event hosted by a number of oil and gas lobbyists representing firms including EQT Corporation and Consol Energy.

Just two days before the public hearing, lawmakers attended a whiskey tasting event hosted by the Shale Gas Alliance at a Charlottesville Marriott hotel, an event Lucas mentioned in her remarks. “The public only gets a minute-forty-five, while lobbyists can throw a gala at the Marriott with whiskey and wine and talk for hours to the delegates,” she said.

It’s hard to divine whether campaign contributions or lobbyists determine a politicians’ vote. But what is clear is the appearance of corruption.

“Unless candidates are independently wealthy, they have to rely on campaign funding from wealthy people and special interests,” Julie Archer, co-coordinator of West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections, told me. “Because of that, it’s hard to avoid either real or perceived conflicts of interest once they’re in office.”

“It’s not just impropriety; it’s the appearance of impropriety that is breaking our democracy,” said Lucas. “It’s causing mistrust in the system. I shouldn’t have to wonder, ‘He got $14,000 from gas and oil—is he gonna stand up for me or not?’”

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