Curry’s surface-rights bill faces important first vote
State Rep. Kathleen Curry’s bill to give landowners in western Garfield County more clout in negotiations with gas companies is scheduled to face an important first test Monday.Curry, the chairwoman of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, received special permission from the House Democratic leadership to delay a vote on her bill. The initial deadline for committee votes on bills has passed. She needed the extra time, she said, to try to shore up support for the measure.Curry recently told The Aspen Times that she has been talking to other legislators every day to explain her bill and educate them about the legislation’s intent. When asked if she had the votes to pass it in the agriculture committee, she said, “I think so, but you never really know for sure.”In a prepared statement released yesterday, Curry said, “I’m excited to take action on the bill because I feel we’ve worked out language that gets at the root of the problem facing surface users and provides for reasonable resolution process. We now have a solid legislative proposal that is good for the state of Colorado.”A bill has to pass the committee where it is assigned before it advances to debate on the floor of the House of Representatives. If approved, it goes to the state Senate.The bill, titled the Surface Use Compensation Act, is HB-1219.Curry is a Democrat from Gunnison whose district includes the entire Roaring Fork Valley and part of western Garfield County. She said she heard loud and clear from residents in the Silt and Rifle areas, where the natural gas boom is occurring, that they need help dealing with gas companies that want to drill on their land.The ownership of mineral rights and surface rights is often split in Colorado. A rancher or other person who owns the land might not own rights to the minerals underground. Gas companies acquire those mineral rights and can legally drill to reach the gas.Gas companies are required to notify landowners about their intent to drill and attempt to negotiate a surface use agreement. The agreement can dictate a wide array of issues, such as compensation if a well is drilled in the middle of a hay field, to maintenance improvements to existing ranch roads.If an agreement isn’t worked out, gas companies can post a bond and commence with development.Critics of the existing process contend landowners are often intimidated and don’t realize the surface rights agreement is open to negotiation. They also claim the process is skewed in gas companies’ favor.As originally written, 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. The appraisal would attempt to determine damages expected from drilling operations. If the appraisal report doesn’t produce an agreement, they would go to arbitration.The gas industry has been lobbying hard against the bill, according to Curry. Lobbyists are telling legislators that the bill would drive up natural gas prices because it would cause delays. Curry counters that commodity markets, not production costs, establish natural gas prices.More than 100 residents of western Garfield County spoke in favor of the bill Feb. 14 when the agriculture committee took the unusual step of leaving Denver for Glenwood Springs to collect testimony.Garfield County is the center of a gas boom sweeping parts of Colorado. About half of the 75 active drilling rigs in the state are in Garfield County. State records show 168 applications for permits to drill were approved in Garfield County so far this year as of March 9.Curry acknowledged last month that her bill will face numerous amendment proposals. She indicated she is willing to make some changes to increase the bill’s chance at approval. However, she said the general direction would be unchanged.”I’ve got to keep the integrity of the bill,” she said.Curry could not be reached for comment yesterday about any proposed changes to her bill.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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