Curry bill on surface rights survives critical first vote
State Rep. Kathleen Curry’s efforts to make sure landowners receive fair compensation for surface damage from gas well drilling passed a major test Wednesday evening.The Colorado House Transportation and Energy Committee unanimously approved a bill introduced by Curry, a Democrat from Gunnison whose district includes Pitkin County and much of Garfield. The bill requires gas drilling companies to try to negotiate settlements with landowners over surface damages. It sets up new procedures if settlements cannot be negotiated.Curry has said her goal is to give landowners more leverage in those negotiations without crippling the gas industry.A similar bill died last year on a 5-6 vote in the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, of which Curry is chairwoman. It faced widespread opposition from the oil and gas industry.Moving it a step further this session is a significant step, Curry said as she and her staff prepared to go out to dinner to celebrate.The bill had bipartisan support in the committee of six Democrats and five Republicans. Curry has also negotiated with everyone from environmental groups to homebuilders associations and the gas industry to try to cobble together language that has a chance of becoming law.”The negotiations have been intense on the bill,” she said. “Everybody’s given something.”The issue is contentious because separate entities often own surface rights and subsurface mineral rights. For example, a ranch south of Rifle might have been in the hands of a family for three generations, but the family might not own rights to the gas underground. In that case, the surface owners cannot prevent a gas company from drilling wells.Many landowners feel Colorado law favors gas operators in those circumstances. Curry, who operates a ranch with her husband, considers her bill an effort to “level the playing field” and balance the rights of two types of property owners.She said she is pursuing the bill for constituents in western Garfield County.The first step under her proposal would be requiring negotiations on damage between the gas company and surface owner. If they cannot reach an agreement on the gas company’s written offer, the two sides hire appraisers to estimate damage from roads, drilling platforms and other ground disturbance. A third appraiser can be hired to break impasses.If that still produces no deal, the gas company can post a $15,000 bond and commence with plans to drill. The landowner can take the issue to civil court.Curry said it was critical for her bill’s survival this year to earn support from British Petroleum, despite opposition from other companies in the industry. “BP moved the whole bill forward,” she said.A BP representative testified at the committee hearing Wednesday that there is still opposition within the industry because of ambiguity over what qualifies as surface disturbance and the potential to have thousands of dollars tied up in bonds if surface owners don’t accept offers.”There are a lot of companies that think this is too broad and pretty controversial,” the BP representative said.That suggests the bill will still face significant challenges as it goes to the House floor. The bill goes next to the House Appropriations Committee because it could have financial implications for a state government agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Agency representatives believe the bill will require more staff time in the field.”We’re hoping that hearing before Appropriations will be uneventful,” Curry said.If it passes there, it will go before the full House. If the House approves it, it still needs approval from the state Senate and governor.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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