House committee buries surface rights bill
Legislation to give landowners more weight when negotiating with oil and gas companies that want to drill on their property was narrowly defeated Wednesday in committee.Several House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee members said changes are needed to protect property owners but State Rep. Kathleen Curry’s House Bill 1219 isn’t the solution.”We certainly don’t want to see our citizens abused. Nor do we want to abuse other property rights in the state,” said committee member Diane Hoppe, a Republican.The energy industry had contended Curry’s bill would have slowed drilling in the state, at the expense of owners of mineral rights and would have driven up natural gas prices.Advocates of natural gas drilling reforms said they might now pursue a state ballot initiative.”If the Legislature is not going to do their jobs and stick up for the surface owners and the citizens of Colorado then the citizens will do it themselves,” said Duke Cox, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, based in the drilling hot spot of western Garfield County.Bill supporters in the committee said reform is needed now because of how much drilling is taking place and how much impact that is having on landowners. When the committee held a hearing on the bill in Glenwood Springs, Democrat Judy Solano said lawmakers need to heed the concerns raised by surface owners.”I think we need to move forward on this this year. I don’t think we can afford to wait till next year,” she said.”We need to do something today – ahora – now,” said committee member Rafael Gallegos, a fellow Democrat.Curry told committee members her bill represents the third legislative attempt in five years to provide just compensation for losses and damage suffered by surface owners – something she believes is guaranteed to landowners under the state constitution.”The general assembly has a job to do and they’re not doing it,” she said.But the committee was unswayed and voted 6-5 against the bill. All five Republicans voted against the measure, and they were joined by Democrat Wes McKinley. McKinley questioned Curry on Thursday about what kind of delays in drilling the bill could create and whether it could the hurt the value of mineral owners’ holdings.Curry’s bill would have required energy developers to try to negotiate surface use agreements with property owners regarding issues such as where to locate facilities and how much compensation should be provided. If those negotiations failed, an appraiser would have been brought in to decide how much in surface damage had occurred. If the disagreement persisted, the matter would have gone to arbitration.The bill was aimed at changing law that lets companies post a bond of as little as $2,000 and proceed with drilling if an agreement can’t be reached.Curry later considered amending the bill so drilling could proceed with a $10,000 bond. But bill proponents objected. Last week, they sought to expand the bill’s scope. Amendments Curry tentatively agreed to would have changed the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to say gas must be developed in a way that protects property values of surface owners, forced future commission members to meet new conflict of interest standards, and clarified that state law does not limit local governments from enacting land-use regulations regarding oil and gas development.However, Curry backed off those changes when she feared they wouldn’t win committee approval.She felt bad for residents in Garfield County that the bill failed.”They hired me to come down here to get something done for them, and I’m just real disappointed that I didn’t get it done,” said Curry, who was elected in November and whose District 61 extends west to Silt.”The people don’t feel let down by Kathleen Curry,” Cox said.Rather, he said, they’re disappointed by committee members who voted against the measure and by the industry for opposing reforms.He said a number of people have been talking about pursuing a ballot initiative if the bill failed. Cox expects the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance to get behind that effort while continuing to pursue a legislative remedy.Greg Schnacke of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association said an initiative would concern the industry but polls show energy prices to be a top public concern. He believes a surface use initiative would further drive up the price of natural gas.McKinley said it’s possible a surface use bill could be reintroduced late in the current legislative session in an attempt to iron out differences between opposing sides. Schnacke welcomed that idea.”We’ve pledged our willingness to sit down with committee members and talk about legitimate issues of concern that might lead to improvements in the oil and gas regulatory structure,” he said.He said several issues discussed by the committee have merit, including increasing the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s staff so it can adequately monitor the industry and providing more information to landowners.But after six weeks of trying to reach agreement among committee members, Curry isn’t hopeful that a compromise can come from a late-session effort to revive the bill.”Even if there is such a thing, I won’t be the one taking the lead on that. We’ve beaten that horse to death,” she said.She said she may carry a similar bill next year. For now, her spirits are sagging after Wednesday’s vote.”It was my most important bill and we got close but we didn’t get there,” she said.
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