Momentum builds for surface use bill
A shifting political landscape is showing promise for meaningful reform related to oil and gas development.State Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, is back for a second year with a bill that seeks to level the playing field between landowners and the industry regarding compensation for the above-ground impacts of energy development. It seeks to encourage surface use compensation agreements, and alter a situation in which it is now all too easy for companies to simply post a bond and drill if a deal isn’t reached.Curry deserves the gratitude of Garfield County residents who sit at ground zero of the state’s natural gas drilling boom. Her measure, or some variation of it, deserves passage by the legislature this year.Several factors may help that occur, unlike last year when Curry’s bill failed to even make it out of a House committee. One is the ever-expanding nature of Colorado’s energy boom, which is causing the issue to have increasing relevance for more and more residents. This includes a growing number on the Front Range, where only a year ago most citizens and thus their elected representatives paid little attention to the matter.Meanwhile, a Garfield County-based group, the Initiative for Surface Owners’ Rights, is threatening to try to put a citizens initiative on this fall’s ballot. And a state lawmaker has indicated he may push the legislature to refer a measure to voters if Curry’s bill doesn’t pass and get signed by Gov. Bill Owens, a former oil and gas lobbyist.Curry’s bill also has been assigned to the Transportation and Energy Committee, where she thinks it has a better chance of being approved and sent to the full House than if it had been assigned for a second year to the Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, which she chairs.All these new circumstances have led to a noticeable change within the industry, which appears considerably more willing to consider some kind of surface use bill than it did a year ago. It even has held discussions with several agricultural groups in an effort to draft its own measure.But there has been little discussion between Curry and the industry, with each claiming to have been largely left out of the efforts by the other to draft a bill.That may be changing. The industry has yet to find a sponsor for its measure, and it’s becoming apparent that if something is to be passed this year – which energy companies should prefer to putting the matter to voters – it is likely to be some variant of Curry’s bill.She has shown a willingness to address industry concerns, within reason. One legitimate concern is a clause that could result in companies being assessed triple damages if a court orders compensation for loss in land value as little as 20 percent higher than they had offered. Curry is considering what sounds like a sensible revision, under which both companies and landowners could face triple damages if a court determines they negotiated in bad faith.Her measure also includes overdue increases in the bonds required to drill without agreements. They would be $25,000 per well. Now they are $2,000 per well on dry land, $5,000 on irrigated land, or $25,000 per company statewide, to cover all wells.The biggest trick may be determining adequate compensation for lost land value without making it cost-prohibitive for the industry to drill in areas targeted for expensive residential development. The difficulty, as with the bill in general, is coming to a reasonable compromise for resolving disputes between the conflicting yet equally legitimate interests of surface and mineral owners.Curry’s bill is the best attempt yet at achieving that compromise. Debate over the details should be allowed to continue, and so we encourage the bill’s passage in its committee hearing today.
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