It is an age old question. If a company finds and harvests gold on someone else’s property, to whom does the gold belong? The company that harvested it or the person who owns the property that the gold was found on? This is the question around which several class action lawsuits in Virginia revolve.
CNX Gas Co. and EQT Production Co. drilled Virginia’s coalfields for methane gas. In doing so, they mined the natural gas from property owned by many different residents of Virginia. So far, the companies have paid $30 million into an escrow fund to pay the residents for their share of the oil that was taken from their land. CONSOL Energy Inc., which owns CNX, has said in its statement that it complied with state law by placing the money into an escrow fund and insists that it supports efforts to release that money to the Virginia property owners.
The class action lawsuits, however, allege that the $30 million is not nearly enough to pay the landowners for the gas that was taken from their property. The lawsuits allege that CNX and EQT deducted post-production costs and other expenses far beyond what was reasonable. In this way, the lawsuits, allege the energy companies cheated the Virginia residents out of tens of millions of dollars.
Don Barrett, a Mississippi attorney who is representing the property owners who first sued, is not convinced that the $30 million is enough to properly compensate the landowners for the gas that was taken from their property. “We’re going to find that the money put in escrow is not nearly what should have been put in escrow,” he said. “What’s in escrow is not half of it.”
In arguing against class certification, the energy companies employed some familiar tactics used by defendants in class action lawsuits. They argued, first, that they had abided by state law and had done nothing wrong. They also argued that the individual claims of the class actions were too diverse and complicated to be handled as a class.
The federal judge disagreed with them and has recently certified the class actions against the companies and now the lawsuits can move forward. Barrett is pleased with the certification of the class actions, calling it “a body blow to the defendants” and “a wake-up call to them.”
According to the plaintiff class action attorney representing the class, Don Barrett, the next step is to make CNX and EQT reveal all of their business dealings with the Virginia landowners. “Now they have to go back and tell us what they’ve taken out of the ground, exactly every penny that was spent for expenses and so on, and why it was reasonable.”
If CNX and EQT are unable to provide the necessary documentation for the gas that they drilled, Barrett says that he can have his own people come up with an estimate of what is still owed to the Virginia residents. “Our experts” he says, “can go back and figure out what the best price for natural gas at that particular time and that’s what they owe.”
Although the exact size of the classes is not yet known, Barrett estimates that thousands of landowners could be included in the lawsuits.
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