Armstead says governor tying gas pooling to teacher raises may be political disaster

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As a statewide teachers strike rolls on, House Speaker Tim Armstead issued a statement critical of fellow Republican Gov. Jim Justice this evening over the governor’s proposal to call a special session on natural gas issues.

Justice advocated for killing a co-tenancy drilling bill that has already passed the House, for backing a controversial joint development bill and for raising severance tax.

That, the governor said, would raise enough revenue to increase teacher salaries and shore up the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

The trouble is, joint development is controversial among both Democrats and Republicans and has failed in the past. Co-tenancy has been flowing through the legislative process with the support of natural gas companies and also mineral rights and land owners.

Armstead said the approach could wind up a mess.

He said he has told the governor that.

Tim Armstead

“The concept of a broad, omnibus natural gas bill including joint development and increases in severance taxes has been discussed for several months, and it has been very clear to me that such legislation does not have the support needed to pass the Legislature,” Armstead stated in a release.

“Many legislators, as well as landowners, farmers, land rights groups and royalty owner groups oppose joint development and believe it would be harmful to landowners in our state. This fact has been shared repeatedly with the Governor.”

Armstead indicated the governor hasn’t listened, though.

“Now, the Governor has decided to interject this unrelated dispute into the current discussion regarding teacher pay and benefits and PEIA in an apparent attempt to convince our teachers and public employees to support such a plan,” said Armstead, R-Kanawha. “I believe this course is headed for disaster.”

ALSO: Justice promotes grand bargain on teacher pay and natural gas drilling

Armstead wasn’t the only member of the House to level criticism at Justice.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, tweeted in response to the governor.

Justice made his comments during three stops around West Virginia. The governor’s official Twitter account echoed his comments during the town hall tour.

One of the governor’s top advisers, working on a volunteer basis, is EQT board member Bray Cary. Cary has been focusing on communications and some policy issues, and the governor’s office said he has stayed away from gas issues.

Today, Justice received criticism back at the Capitol both from representatives of some natural gas organizations and from mineral rights and land owner organizations that have worked on the co-tenancy bill.

Co-tenancy, which passed the House of Delegates and now is in Senate Judiciary, requires at least 75 percent of rights holders on a single piece of property to OK drilling. Advocates say it’s a way to allow the majority to go ahead if a few holdouts don’t want drilling or can’t be located.

Joint development would allow an operator that already has old leases, signed before modern shale drilling began, to combine into a single drilling unit. It’s significantly more controversial.

John Kelly

“I’m pretty disappointed about the whole thing,” said Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, vice chairman of the House Energy Committee.

“Joint development is a program that has no chance of passage in the House of Delegates. It’s failed every year since I’ve been here and I believe it’s going to continue to fail. It’s a taking and right now there’s only one company in the state of West Virginia — that I’m aware of — that even wants a joint development law passed.

“The other companies, this law actually goes against their current business practices.”

Bill Anderson

Joint development stands no chance of passing the House of Delegates, even if intertwined with co-tenancy and educator pay and healthcare issues, said Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood and chairman of the House Energy Committee.

“In my judgement lease integration will not pass the House of Delegates. We tried that three years ago in House Bill 2688, which failed,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the lesson of the past has been dealing with the drilling issues independently.

“Co-tenancy has the horsepower to pass this year,” Anderson said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, told The Charleston Gazette-Mail that the co-tenancy bill will continue to be considered.

“It’s going to run, it’s going to run this week,” Trump told the newspaper.

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