Curry plan helps landowners in negotiations with gas drillers
A bill that would give Colorado landowners extra muscle when negotiating with gas companies that want to drill on their property was introduced by state Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, yesterday.The bill has already been hailed by numerous landowners in western Garfield County as legislation that could “level the playing field” for them.They will get a chance to officially lobby the Legislature for approval Monday, Feb. 14, when members of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee come to Glenwood Springs to collect public testimony. That special meeting will be in the Garfield County commissioners board room from 3:30 to 6 p.m.Curry, whose district includes all of the Roaring Fork Valley and some of western Garfield County, pledged to try to assist surface rights owners during the fall campaign.In Colorado, ownership of surface rights and mineral rights is often split on private property. A family that owns the land might not own the rights to the gas below.Gas companies lease the mineral rights, then contact the landowner with their plans.Peggy Utesch, a landowner in the Divide Creek area south of Silt, said the current system of negotiations favors gas companies and “leaves landowners out of the equation.” The gas companies typically give landowners a 30-day notice that drilling will commence. Drillers make a standard offer of $2,500 to landowners for damaging the property or something like taking part of a hay field out of production, according to Utesch. Many landowners accept that offer, or take even less, because they are unaware of their rights.”It’s like you’re being told to play a board game without knowing the rules,” Utesch said.If a landowner holds out for a better deal than what is being offered, Colorado regulations allow the gas company to place a bond and commence work. Curry’s bill puts a different process in place. It requires “good faith” negotiations that the gas companies initiate. If no deal is reached, an appraisal must be undertaken at the gas firm’s expense. It establishes the value of the land and the expected damages. If negotiations are still unfruitful, the sides go to binding arbitration. The bonding option is eliminated.Representatives of gas companies at a recent meeting of the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board said they will oppose the bill. They said they fear it will allow landowners to delay drilling.Curry said she doesn’t want the proposed legislation used as a stalling tactic by landowners, but she wants “a little more equity for surface owners.”For Utesch and her husband, Bob, the relief cannot come quickly enough. Although their four acres haven’t been drilled yet, 24 wells have been drilled within one mile of their land. When asked if she feels there is a bull’s-eye on her property, she responded, “I feel like I have a bull’s-eye on my forehead.”Utesch said she believes the bill is reasonable. Natural gas is obviously needed and Garfield County has obviously got great reserves. The gas companies are getting rich extracting it, she noted.”It feels like it’s coming off the landowners’ backs,” Utesch said. “What the landowners want is permanent protection.”The text of the bill is available on the state legislative web site: http://www.leg.state.co.us.The House agriculture committee cannot take formal action in Glenwood Springs. It will reconvene at the state Capitol on Feb. 16 to gather more testimony.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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