Colorado Mining Sparks Disputes with Homeowners

In Colorado, some lawmakers want the companies who are drilling under private properties to compensate the homeowners. Residents bought land and built homes without realizing that they didn't own the mineral rights beneath them. From Aspen Public Radio, Kirk Siegler reports.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Business News starts with a battle over mineral rights. Oil and gas development is booming across the West, and federal land managers have been issuing a record number of drilling permits. Those permits sometimes allow energy companies to drill on people's private property. And we have two reports this morning on the ensuing battles. The first comes from Kirk Siegler, of Aspen Public Radio.

KIRK SIEGLER reporting:

Since the mid-'90s, swarms of new residents have bought land and built homes in western Colorado. Most didn't realize they were not also acquiring the mineral rights beneath them. This is common, though, across the West. It's a legacy of a law that Congress passed almost a century ago. It allowed settlers to claim land, but the government kept the rights to minerals underneath. Now, those mineral rights are highly coveted as oil and gas prices are soaring.

The Bush Administration is pushing to open up more land to energy development, and is selling those mineral rights to private companies. And now in places like Colorado's Garfield County, four hours west of Denver, the people living on the surface, and the companies digging underground, are clashing. An 18-wheel tanker trunk whizzes across the road in front of Beth Jardinsky's(ph) home. From her back porch, Jardinsky can see several 200-feet tall natural gas rigs on her neighbor's property.

Ms. Beth JARDINSKY: We have a well pod there. You've got a well pod right back here.

SIEGLER: And she's worried they could be on her land before too long. When Jardinsky built her dream home here in 1999, she didn't realize that energy companies could come prospecting on her property.

Ms. JARDINSKY: I really, literally, I walk to my mailbox, and I hold my breath every day, 'cause I'm, I just wait for the notice to come in that they're coming in, and they're gonna drill on my site.

SIEGLER: And there's nothing preventing energy companies from doing this.

Ms. JARDINSKY: There's not much you can do about it. You know, you can't fight them. They're so huge, that you can't fight them. And all the laws right now are in their favor.

SIEGLER: Colorado lawmakers are debating a measure aimed at reforming those laws. The bill would require energy companies to work out agreements with surface landowners and pay them for any damages caused by drilling. In cases where the two sides can't reach agreement, companies would have to post a bond of at least $25,000, and that money would pay for any damages.

A similar bill failed last year after the state's powerful oil and gas lobby fought it bitterly. Ken Wanstolen, Executive Vice President of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, is ready to fight again. Wanstolen says the bill would cripple his industry.

Mr. KEN WANSTOLEN (Executive Vice President, Colorado Oil and Gas Association): If you increase the costs of operation, that will have an impact on supply. And that will have an impact on the overall energy posture of the United States.

SIEGLER: Wanstolen says dense subdivisions are crowding onto land where energy companies have a right to drill. Under the bill, he says, companies would have to compensate potentially dozens of homeowners before drilling, a scenario he says could double the costs of doing business. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler in Aspen.

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