Election Section

Final energy bill likely to offer little help for landowners

By Judith Kohler, The Associated Press
Saturday April 06, 2002

DENVER — A consultant for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said Friday an energy bill now before Congress probably won’t help landowners who have to allow oil and gas companies on their property. 

John Watts, who works for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said the Interior Department and some members of Congress are looking at ways to resolve conflicts between the oil and gas industry and landowners. 

“You have to be pretty unfeeling not to sympathize with what a lot of ranchers are going through,” Watts told an audience at a conference on coal-bed methane development in the Rockies. 

But, Watts added, laws giving mineral leaseholders more rights than landowners would have to be changed, and the industry adamantly opposes that. “I think in the near term, it’s going to be difficult to get a sharp change in the law,” he said. 

Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, and others want to do something to resolve the conflicts, Watts said. One option might be incentives for companies to enter agreements with landowners on location of roads and equipment and compensation for damage. 

The clash between landowners and companies leasing minerals under their land was one of the topics in the two-day conference sponsored by the University of Colorado Natural Resources Law Center. The sessions ended Friday. 

Landowners and activists vented their frustration with companies they claim violate environmental laws and threaten their livelihoods as coal-bed methane wells multiply throughout the Rockies. 

Industry representatives complained critics sometimes spread horror stories unsupported by facts. “If we can’t agree on the facts, we’ll never agree on what we’re going to do about it,” said Mark Sexton, president of the Evergreen Corp., a Colorado gas company. 

Industry officials said during a panel discussion Friday that energy conservation is crucial but won’t be enough to meet the nation’s rising demand. Natural gas from coal-bed methane and conventional wells pollutes far less than coal, they said. 

Interior Department officials have said coal-bed methane will be an important part of the Bush administration’s plan to increase domestic energy production and reduce oil imports. 

Methane gas is captured by pumping groundwater to relieve the pressure trapping the gas in coal seams. Significant commercial production began in the 1980s. 

The San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado is the country’s largest coal-bed methane field. The Powder River Basin in northeastern Wyoming and southern Montana is quickly catching up, with about 10,000 wells in place and than 70,000 predicted over the next several years. 

Watts said the energy bill before the Senate may recommend boosting by about $20 million the Bureau of Land Management’s budget for inspecting wells and enforcing regulations. 

He said when debate resumes next week, he expects a proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development will fail.  

The multibillion-dollar question is what will happen when the bill goes to conference committee, because the House backs drilling in the refuge, Watts said.