Land owners fight back against drillers |

Land owners fight back against drillers

Nicholas Riccardi
Los Angeles Times

BAYFIELD ” The energy boom across the West has created tens of thousands of jobs and funded state scholarships, teacher raises ” even top-of-the-line sports centers in remote ranch towns.

The other day, Roger Hawkins was reminded how much all that wealth would cost him.

Strolling his 32-acre ranch in southwest Colorado, Hawkins came across yellow survey tape running past a web of deer tracks. It indicated plans for drilling on his property ” in the pine-studded hollow where he had hoped to build a new home.

Like many Westerners, Hawkins owns the surface of his ranch but not the rights to the minerals below. Traditionally, property owners in such “split estates” have had little choice but to get out of the way when energy companies start chopping trees, paving roads or sinking wells to get buried fuel.

But now they’re fighting back.

Legislatures in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming recently passed bills to rein in oil, gas and coal extraction on private property. The measures do not halt the practice, by any means; the energy extracted heats homes and powers fuel plants, and Western states depend on energy revenue and the jobs that exploration brings. But the legislation gives some leverage to landowners.

“Everything is starting to shift in favor of the surface owner to protect them from the big, bad energy companies,” said Hayley Shelton, who tracks such bills for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Mineral rights owners can still drill, she said, “but they have to walk a more narrow line.”

Colorado’s changes, endorsed by Republicans and Democrats, may have the furthest reach.

Last week, Gov. Bill Ritter signed a law reorganizing the state’s oil and gas commission, which approves and monitors drilling. The law dilutes the influence of the energy industry and adds experts in public health and environmental effects.

Ritter also signed a law requiring prospectors to work with property owners to plan drilling. The landowners can make requests about the location of the wells and the timing of the work. They may ask drillers to control noise or dust, to start drilling at a reasonable hour, or to limit truck trips over sensitive terrain.

The energy companies must abide by such requests as long as the alternatives are “technologically sound” and “economically practicable.” It may require several court cases to pin down precisely what that means. The legislation’s supporters call the vague language essential to ensure flexibility ” so an oil well in a patch of scrub isn’t held to the same standards as a drilling rig in a densely populated community.

The key point: “You have to reasonably accommodate each other,” said state Rep. Ellen Roberts, a Republican.

Historically, if an energy company wanted to drill on your land, “they could say, ‘You don’t like it? Tough,'” Roberts said. “This levels the playing field.”

For years, the energy industry blocked any attempt to bolster the rights of landowners. Lobbyists pointed to the undeniable economic benefits of drilling, especially as gas and oil prices soared.

Wyoming has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, thanks to the energy industry. New Mexico has been able to greatly expand subsidized preschool with money from energy taxes.

Lobbyists argued that they needed to explore domestic resources to satisfy Americans’ vast appetite for energy. “The industry has to at least have an ability to access (fuel) . . . for society’s use,” said Greg Schnacke, executive vice president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

But tensions between energy companies and landowners have soared in recent years, creating substantial pressure for change.

With the population booming across the Mountain West, prospectors can no longer sink wells in the middle of nowhere. There aren’t many empty expanses left.

“They’re coming into back yards now,” said Gwen Lachelt, an activist in Durango who advocates for tighter control of the energy industry.

Recognizing that change was inevitable, industry officials in several states agreed to back the recent round of measures. In New Mexico, energy companies have agreed to give property owners a 30-day notice before drilling, compensate them for any damage, and restore the land to its original condition when the wells are tapped out, which can take decades.

“Prior to this law, we could have showed up at 6 a.m. right next to someone’s house, been there for as long as it takes, and just leave,” said Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. “That’s not right.”

A similar bill was passed in Wyoming in 2005 and in Montana this spring.

This year, Wyoming lawmakers revised the state’s unusual eminent domain law, which allows businesses to take private property for economic gain. The new law requires good-faith negotiations before any property is taken and makes it easier for landowners to challenge businesses in court.

Amid the flurry of legislation, Colorado state Rep. Larry Liston cautions against too much regulation of oil and gas companies.

“I fully appreciate that farmers and ranchers don’t want their land all ripped up, but you have to look at the global picture. Gas is at $3 a gallon and climbing. . . . We’ve got to have a secure supply,” said Liston, a Republican.

He added that Colorado’s budget depended on taxes collected from energy companies.

“We’re foolish if we listen to the extreme environmentalists and put such shackles and regulations on the energy industry that they say, ‘Fine, we’ll go somewhere else.’ Then we’d really be up a creek,” Liston said. “At the end of the day, we need to strike a balance.”

As for Hawkins, he’s still waiting to see what will happen to the hollow he picked out for his dream home. When he and his wife bought their ranch about a decade ago, they knew it included a gas well. But the drilling rig was shielded by ponderosa pine and scrub oak; Hawkins figured he’d be able to raise his goats and emus in peace.

Last year, the energy company told him it planned to double the size of the work area by clearing dozens of trees from a 2-acre patch of forest. The company offered him $10,000 to stay off the 2 acres, Hawkins said. He turned it down, hoping to block the expansion altogether. He walks that land looking for mountain lion tracks and deer, and he scans the skies for bald eagles.

“I moved out of the city for this,” Hawkins said. “This is what I wanted, my dream. And they’re going to bite into it.”

Colorado’s new law requiring accommodation of property owners applies only to projects launched after Sept. 1, 2007. So no matter how strenuously Hawkins objects, he may not be able to stop the drilling.

Touring his ranch on a recent evening, he was surprised — and deeply unhappy — to see the yellow survey tape. He had not even known the surveyors were on his land.

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