Gas bill vote set for Monday
A bill designed to protect landowners from natural gas development will get its first big test Monday in a vote by a committee in the Colorado House of Representatives.It’s only one of several major tests that the surface-use legislation proposed by state Rep. Kathleen Curry faces before it could become law.The freshman lawmaker said she expects big battles in both the House and Senate in trying to get the bill passed.”I think it’s going to be a major fight. It’s an educational process,” she said.Part of the challenge is that probably 85 percent of lawmakers come from parts of the state where drilling and its impacts aren’t issues, Curry said. Even if Curry’s bill passes the Legislature, it faces the threat of a veto by Gov. Bill Owens, a former oil and gas industry lobbyist.But Curry isn’t losing hope.”I remain very optimistic that we can move forward on this issue this year,” Curry said.”There’s so much support for the bill that it really keeps me going,” she said. “All over Colorado people write in and say it’s about time we even the playing field just a little bit,” she said.The bill seeks to force the energy industry to negotiate a surface-use agreement with a property owner before drilling. Currently, companies can bypass that process by simply posting as little as a $2,000 bond.Curry chairs the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee. While many House bills had faced earlier deadlines for committee votes, Curry won permission from House Speaker Andrew Romanoff to delay her committee’s vote on her legislation until next week.Curry said she’s been working “to try to amend the language basically to get everybody on board.”As currently written, the bill requires an appraiser to decide on appropriate compensation if parties can’t agree on reasonable reimbursement for damages from drilling. If there is disagreement over the appraisal, the matter would go to arbitration.Curry said one concern she is trying to address is that either party could choose not to negotiate, forcing the parties directly into the appraisal process. Some bill critics say landowners could end up receiving less compensation through appraisals than they often receive now under surface-use agreements.Curry is looking at requiring a mandatory negotiating period instead. She said she’s not sure whether to retain the appraisal process if negotiations fail, or to allow companies to post bonds, but of a much higher amount – at least $10,000.One problem with the current bonding process is that landowners must prove unreasonable damages to make a claim, Curry said. “Unreasonable” needs to be redefined, because things such as well pads now are considered reasonable, she said.”There is a financial loss. The industry gets to develop the resource at the expense of someone else,” she said.She said she isn’t sure what the chances are of the bill passing out of committee. Some committee members have yet to commit one way or the other, she said.One holdout is Grand Junction Republican Josh Penry, who previously served as press spokesman for since-retired U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis. “I think there are some clear problems with the status quo, some inequities,” Penry said.But he said he doesn’t support the bill as it was introduced.”There are just a number of provisions that swing the pendulum too far in the other direction,” he said.He said he’s working with Curry on ways her bill could achieve a better balance.”I don’t know how far off her bill she’s willing to come,” he said.He agreed with Curry that the current bond amount is too low, and said the procedures for claiming a bond are unclear. No one has ever filed for a claim, Penry said. He suggests that the state provide an ombudsman who could advocate for surface owners and apprise them of gas development regulations, and their rights in dealing with the energy industry.Currently, “The only way to work your way through the maze is to lawyer up,” he said.Many landowners can’t afford to hire attorneys, Penry said. He said he’s upset by complaints he’s heard from landowners, particularly about EnCana Oil & Gas USA, a leading gas producer in Garfield County.”But I don’t think we should enact revolutionary changes to deal with a handful of bad actors,” he said.Penry said homeowners can’t simply argue that there should be no drilling at all. But neither should the industry just say no to any kind of change in law, when reasonable reforms are possible, he said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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