By Barbara Grigg
The beauty of life experience over time, particularly in one discipline, is perspective.
While preparing to teach reporting and sponsor “The Columns” student newspaper at Fairmont State University this fall, an item from my predecessor’s syllabus collided with my own real-world experience.
His assignment: A Pulitzer-Prize-winning project. My contribution: Being the recent recipient of a real Pulitzer-winning journalist’s labor. My story may have wide implications for many readers and, I hope, a journalist or two.
A couple of years ago I received a letter of instruction and application from a natural gas firm in southwest Virginia. Investigation showed, first, that the offer was legitimate: My brother and I, heirs of my father, inherited his portion of an estate from my dad’s brother-in-law’s estate — all years before.
The state of Virginia had mandated the gas company contact us, and many thousands of others. Long story made short: Back in the day when coal companies bought rights to people’s land, methane gas was an unknown quantity. When methane gas began to be marketable around 1990, coal and gas entities squabbled in court for decades about who owned that gas.
Original land owners who’d signed mineral rights contracts for coal didn’t really figure into this equation until a reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier in southwest Virginia began to look into it.
Media General News Service’s December 2009 headline for Daniel Gilbert’s piece read “State of Virginia mineral rights royalties languish in escrow.” Many millions of dollars in escrow. The entire text of his December 2009 multi-part project is available online at pulitzer.org/winners/bristol-va-herald-courier.
“For the work of Daniel Gilbert in illuminating the murky mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to thousands of land owners in southwest Virginia, spurring remedial action by state lawmakers,” says the account of his 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service on the Pulitzer web page.
Three points are worthwhile:
Gilbert’s work disproves the mindset that big things always come from big flashy places.
West Virginia, itself in the throes of a natural gas boom, may not have all its methane gas royalty ducks in a row, or companies may not have been challenged on the matter.
It is possible to fight city hall and large unsympathetic business interest if someone is willing to put in the legwork.
For landowners with mineral rights, MineralWise online (mineralweb.com/mineral-rights-by-state/west-virginia-mineral-rights/) is a good place to start. It shows mineral rights by state, with pages for owner’s guide, director, library resources, news and a forum.
But for some eager and hungry journalist, investigation into the legal status and corporate management of methane mineral rights in West Virginia would likewise be a great public service. And maybe even another Pulitzer prize.
By Barbara Grigg