Curry, gas industry spar over bill
State Rep. Kathleen Curry sparred with gas industry representatives yesterday over their allegations that a bill she introduced will cripple the industry in Colorado and drive up prices for consumers nationwide.Spokesmen for EnCana Oil and Gas USA and Williams Energy, the two biggest gas producers in Garfield County, spoke at a public hearing against Curry’s bill that would give surface owners more bargaining power during negotiations with companies that want to drill on their land.Curry and other members of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee ventured out of the Capitol in Denver on Monday afternoon to collect public testimony in Glenwood Springs about the bill. Curry, a Democrat from Gunnison, represents a district that includes the Roaring Fork Valley.About 200 people attended the hearing, including a large contingent of gas industry workers who wore white buttons with black lettering that said, “Mineral rights are property rights.”About one dozen industry representatives or workers spoke in opposition to the bill, claiming it would prevent gas companies from drilling in a timely way.”It would threaten jobs and job creation,” said Steve Soychak, a district manager for Williams Energy. He said his company employs 75 of its own workers and 700 contractors out of its Parachute office. The company operates roughly 1,000 gas wells in Garfield County and produces enough natural gas to heat 1 million households daily.
A representative of EnCana also alleged the bill would decrease the level of drilling and reduce economic benefits for western Colorado.”This bill is bad for operators and bad for Colorado,” the EnCana official said.Curry’s bill establishes a four-step process between gas companies and surface rights owners. The gas companies would initiate negotiations. If the sides cannot negotiate a surface use agreement, they would mutually select an appraiser from a list of state-certified professionals. If the appraisal report didn’t produce an agreement, they would go to arbitration.Surface rights and the underground mineral rights are often owned separately in Colorado. Gas companies must notify surface owners when they are going to drill and they are currently required to negotiate a surface use agreement. However, they can post a $2,500 bond with the state and proceed with work.Soychak and other gas industry officials complained that Curry’s proposal would create a bureaucratic process that would delay drilling. The gas drilling boom is so intense in the West that owners of drilling rigs would move idle equipment to other states rather than wait for permits to be issued in Colorado, Soychak said.Curry countered that her proposal would create a process that takes no more than 90 days to conclude. She said she will amend her bill to allow gas companies to pursue a drilling permit simultaneously to negotiating with landowners, once negotiations reach a certain stage. That’s meant to prevent the process from being used as a stalling tactic, she said.
While the bill was unpopular with the gas industry, it was lauded by numerous property owners who formed the majority of the audience. A cheer broke out when Silt-area resident Hermann Staufer thanked Curry for having the courage to introduce the bill. “We are the David fighting the Goliath,” he said.Staufer and several other speakers said they aren’t trying to stop gas from being drilled – which cannot be done legally. They just want extra leverage in the bargaining process.Cattle rancher Larry Jensen said he thought state regulatory agencies would help him receive compensation for damage to hayfields and other parts of his property. In reality, the regulations give gas companies “a sweetheart deal” when compared to mining companies and other extractive industries, he said. He said he supports gas development, but not when landowners get financially damaged without compensation.”It tears our heart to know our ranch is going to be developed as an oil patch,” Jensen said.Curry’s bill picked up two important endorsements. The Colorado Farm Bureau, a powerful lobbying group, spoke in support. “It provides an opportunity for all parties to form an agreement,” representative Calvin Roberts said.
The La Plata County commissioners also favor the bill, according to their consultant on gas issues and spokesman Michael Matheson. La Plata County has experienced more gas development than Garfield County and supports the idea of giving landowners more power in negotiations, Matheson said. Landowners often feel coerced into agreeing with whatever the gas company proposes because the company can end negotiations by posting a bond, he said.Matheson urged the agriculture committee to ignore warnings that the bill could stop drilling. Gas prices are too high and Garfield County is loaded with gas reserves, he said.”This industry isn’t going anywhere. Life’s pretty good right now,” Matheson said.The agriculture committee, of which Curry is the chairwoman, is taking additional testimony on the bill, numbered 1219, in Denver this week.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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