by Max Brantley
Gov. Beebe and the Stephens family have already decreed that Arkansas's scandalously low severance tax on gas is not to be touched this session. Arkansas must continue to pay high severance tax on gas from neighboring states, but ship away its finite resource for a pittance. By now, we should be used to that, though even such disparate voices as Sheffield Nelson, Ernest Dumas and former Rep. Jim Lendall have written in recent days about the wisdom of a severance tax increase.
It is particularly wise because of the expected huge boom in gas exploration in the Fayetteville shale, which will be a more environmentally fraught gas play of potentially huge import.
You will be happy to know that the major exploration companies with lease interests in the shale not only refuse to pay a reasonable severance tax, they are hard at work on legislation to make it difficult for land owners to recover damages the drilling might cause, or other negligent acts.
The bill hasn't been filed yet -- look for Death Star Bob Johnson to carry it in the Senate, there's no burden too great he won't carry for a giant corporate interest -- but trial lawyers who've read it say it would discourage lawsuits in favor of an expensive-for-the-little-guy arbitration process for landowners. Should those damaged by the gas companies dare to exercise a right to go on to court, they risk a loser-pays form of justice if a court awards less than an arbitrator awards. Talk about a chilling effect.
This process is so overloaded in favor of out-of-state interests bent on taking our natural resources and running -- and so adverse to the interest of everyday Arkansas citizens -- you have to figure it's a leadpipe cinch to pass.
Just remember this: When a gas company, with a straight face, says it is introducing legislation to improve existing legal protections for land owners, the proper reaction is to snort, guffaw and hoot.