By Daniel Gilbert
Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier
On Sunday, our newspaper launched an eight-day investigative series on mineral rights that draws extensively on techniques I learned at IRE's August boot camp on computer-assisted reporting. The stories focus on landowners forced by the state of Virginia to lease their mineral rights to private companies. The companies are required to pay royalties into a state-run escrow fund, pending a determination of who owns the gas. The royalties have accumulated for almost 20 years without any meaningful oversight, and the fund now contains more than $24 million.
It turns out that the escrow fund should contain much more. Hundreds of individual accounts in escrow aren’t receiving deposits during months that the wells are producing gas, which points to a host of problems including companies that have failed to file the required paperwork for royalties to be escrowed, years after their wells began producing.
After a lot of back-and-forth, the state agency tasked with monitoring the escrow fund has acknowledged the discrepancies and vowed to fix the problems. One major corporation has issued a mea culpa; none of the companies or the state have disputed my analysis, which I provided to them for review. Months ago, I could have written a story that pointed out the lack of oversight in place, and the very limp incentives the state gave companies to follow the law.
With the basic CAR techniques I learned, I wrote a story that illustrates specific ways in which energy corporations have failed to follow the law, and the state agency regulating them has failed to make them comply. As a Web component, our staff created a searchable database of escrow statements, which will enable people in the region, throughout the state and across the country to look up what they have a claim to in escrow. You can follow the stories here.