Voters could decide surface vs. mineral rights issue
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series. The first looked at legislative efforts to address the impact of oil and gas development on landowners.Whatever the outcome of surface-use legislation this spring, the matter could go before Colorado voters in the fall.A Garfield County group is organizing in hopes of putting an initiative on the ballot. In addition, state Democrats stand ready to ask the Legislature to put the issue before voters if surface-use legislation fails.State Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, plans to introduce a modified surface-use bill this year, following the defeat of her bill in a House committee last year. The oil and gas industry and several agricultural groups also are holding talks in hopes of coming up with their own bill. Ken Wonstolen, of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said he would prefer the matter be dealt with legislatively than via the ballot box.At issue is a common situation known as split estate, in which the land on the surface and minerals underground are owned separately. When gas companies lease or acquire the mineral rights, the surface owner cannot prevent them from drilling.State law requires gas companies to notify landowners of plans to drill and to negotiate compensation for damages. But if no deal is struck, the gas companies can commence work after posting a bond of up to $5,000 and as little as $2,000.Some residents in Garfield County, where gas drilling is prevalent, say landowners are not fairly compensated for damage caused when gas wells are drilled on their property.John Gorman, a Glenwood Springs real estate agent who sits on the Initiative for Surface Owners Rights committee, said state lawmakers arent likely to be able to solve the problem themselves.We have never been convinced that the Legislature has the ability to pass the kind of good legislation that will be signed by our pro-business governor, Gorman said.Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, formerly worked as an oil and gas industry lobbyist.State Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, said Democrats may very well seek to place a referendum on the ballot.Its a big issue, and unfortunately we havent been able to get much of a compromise going here at the Legislature, he said.Democrats hold majority control of both the House and Senate. Pommer is chairman of the House Transportation and Energy Committee.One advantage of a referendum is that it wouldnt require Owens signature to go on the ballot, Pommer said. But it would take approval by two-thirds of both the House and Senate.Some lawmakers might feel more comfortable letting voters decide than passing a bill themselves, Pommer said.He said hed rather see a bill address the problem. That way, lawmakers can talk to everyone and hear their concerns, he said.Once you move to a referendum, suddenly the language is locked and it becomes a battle of 30-second commercials, and thats an unfortunate way to do things.Gormans group and Pommer havent compared notes.I think were probably on roughly the same page about it, Pommer said.Gorman said he would welcome Pommer putting his committees measure on the ballot.If that happens that would make my job a whole lot easier, he said.But Gorman said a referendum would have to have pretty much the exact language the group is planning. Otherwise, his group would continue to go the initiative route.He said the group, mostly people who live between Glenwood Springs and Silt, has drafted simple language that would change the state constitution to compensate surface owners for damage caused by oil and gas development. He expects it would lead to court cases as parties sort out the implications of the initiative.Other surface-use legislation has focused on reaching fair surface-use agreements between the industry and property owners where development is occurring. But the initiative also would allow other affected surface owners, such as owners of property where trucks crash and spill condensates, to seek compensation, Gorman said.Gorman operated a natural gas compressor in the 1970s. More recently, he has sold homes to people who later have been impacted by drilling. He said the initiative committee recognizes the need for oil and gas development but just wants it to be done responsibly.Its measure shouldnt affect energy costs, he said. Instead, it should mean energy companies have to wait another week or 10 days to begin making a profit, after the year or so it typically takes to recover the $1 million or more in costs to drill a well, Gorman said. Local wells can go on producing for decades and generate revenues of $10 million or more.So were talking about a pretty minuscule thing, Gorman said.Gorman said that come springtime, his group will need to begin seeking signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. He said hes not sure of the exact amount but believes a minimum of about 63,000 signatures is needed.
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