Under Shaky Dome, Left and Far-Right Unite Against Lobbyists

“Some things are more powerful than money.” That’s not heard a lot in West Virginia politics, especially from a Charleston native. Pushkin’s expertise comes from his career as a Charleston cabbie, driving for those with money and power, “You never see lobbyists lose that big.”

Delegate Mike Pushkin (D)

State Delegate Mike Pushkin (D) is part of a new majority in the House. In 2014, the Capitol saw a major shift — the first election of Republican majorities since the New Deal — but the biggest change was in experience. Of the state’s 100 elected Representatives, 61 have been elected since 2010. 33 are serving their freshman terms. This rare change-over has let some local politicians break from entrenched party lines and build towards a new consensus.

The failed bill, HB2688, would have affected 5,600 square miles of Marcellus Shale in the northern part of the state. It is the site of West Virginia’s new energy boom — natural gas and oil. The bill allowed for “forced pooling,” which lets horizontal drilling companies lease the mineral rights of a property owner’s land without permission, if a certain percentage of surrounding property owners voluntarily lease theirs. HB2688 would lead the way to horizontal natural gas and oil drilling beneath over 300,000 acres of privately-owned land without the owners’ permission, according to lobbyists’ figures. This strikes a familiar chord in a state where in the last century, mysterious agents showed up at front doors with tiny offers for vast reserves of coal underground.

Delegate Saira Blair (R) is a rare Freshman, elected at age 18

The West Virginia Natural Gas and Oil Association claims that by combining pools, drilling companies could roughly double their number of both wells and revenue over 20 years, making the state more competitive. One problem with their plan is West Virginia’s poor climate of capitalizing on its limited natural resources. Another flaw is that lobbyists’ projections assume that, without pooling, the number of new wells would remain at its current level and decline in 5 years. With technology and demand changing, the number of new wells per year in that area grew more than 30 times between 2008–2014. It is not simple to speculate on natural gas, because of the changing market and technological field. Drilling will become more cost-effective and the number of wells could easily be predicted to rise with demand.

The Speaker of the House, Tim Armstead (R), became a proponent of forced pooling since finding the Republicans in Majority this session. An attorney for a natural gas transportation company, Speaker Armstead pushed the bill past Libertarian upstarts, who saw it as a violation of the 4th Amendment — protecting citizens from unlawful seizure. The Liberty Caucus staged small walk-outs and sent taunting texts messages. The Speaker tried to trade with them for a gun bill. Air Force veteran and second-term Delegate, Patrick McGeehan (R), prepared to filibuster. Quickly, the Speaker called the vote and limited debate.

Speaker of the House discusses procedure with Majority Leader Daryl Cowles
A Libertarian upstart from the back row throws a paper airplane to Del. Joshua Nelson (R) during a lull in the Session

There is precedent for forced pooling, even from Charleston in 1993. The House debated potential employment as a public good, to grant the industry a version of eminent domain. There could be some additional growth in transportation and pipeline building and upkeep. Employment would be limited, however, because of high mechanization and need for out-of-state drilling experts.

Delegate Shott (R) argued that potential royalty payments are better than the current situation, in which a company “could take your gas without paying you a penny.” Because gas moves under the earth, that is an issue. But Delegate Shott, Chairman of House Judiciary, focused on the symptom. Perhaps a holistic approach to demarcation is needed to protect West Virginia property owners — especially because the state leases horizontal drilling under public land to build its small tax base.

Many on both sides of the aisle quoted Locke, Jefferson, and Madison, arguing the fundamental right of property included the choice to sell it. Delegate McGeehan offered only a Bible verse. In the gallery, teams of lobbyists in black and gray watched. The Liberty Caucus’ whip count was 50–50 — a defeat of the bill if everyone held their ground. ‘Everyone’ was a bipartisan group willing to go against the Leadership.

HB2688 passed the House 60–40 initially. Outside the Chambers, the white marble and columned foyer became monochrome as it filled with the colorless lobbyists. Then, they came to life with handshakes and war stories. More color came with the blue suits of current and former Delegates, coming to celebrate. The Bill would just need to clear the Senate.

Natural gas lobbyists among those celebrating

Then, a small technical Amendment from the Senate required the House’s approval. “Once that little change happened, I knew we had another shot to defeat it,” said Delegate Pat McGeehan.

“I disagree with him on almost everything, but you always know where Pat McGeehan stands on something,” explains the anti-bill liberal Delegate Pushkin, “And I have respect for that.” He describes their “odd bedfellow” coalition — “I really didn’t think we had the votes…you had folks like me, who care about the environment… strict Constitutionalists, Libertarian-types… some of the Democratic Leadership that just wanted a win on the last day of Session… a hodge-podge of Republicans who — for one reason or another — their issue didn’t get through.”

“They didn’t believe we could defeat them.” Idealism pours out of McGeehan. He and Libertarian cohorts ran a frantic whip operation with a red pen and a print-out of a previous vote. Delegate McGeehan hoped blindly and made careful marks behind his desk, a fortress of academic texts from past centuries. Their spines are pointed outwards as if to challenge a visitor to a debate. “Rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud”, by Sophocles, is turned towards himself, set in brass.

“He’s not going to listen to what I have to say,” McGeehan is uncharacteristically vulnerable when he advised to approach Minority Leader Miley. They would have to hold onto the Republicans from the last vote and find more Democrats.

The New Minority — Democratic Leaders debate on the Floor (Minority Whip Mike Caputo standing, Min. Leader Tim Miley in center)

“Having a citizen legislature really is an amazing thing, because it teaches you how to play well with others,” says Minority Leader Miley, who is in his sixth term. After protracted procedural battles, a vote was called at 10:52 PM on the Session’s last night. Before, controversial votes slowly trickled onto the electric scoreboard. The legislators were frayed from a non-stop 60 days, but this vote went quickly. Then, there was a call-and-response from Speaker Armstead’s “49 Yeas, 49 Nays,” and huge cheers of the usually decorous House of Delegates.

Lobbyists have ruled in Charleston, but this vote may be a shot for independence. Delegate Mike Pushkin wonders, “I really don’t know what that group would be able to agree on again.” Too often, politics are ruled by prejudices of color or ideology. In that possibly fleeting coalition, citizen legislators united against an idea they all thought was wrong. Even if they can’t agree on almost anything else.