Feds oppose state's effort to empower landowners

 

Wyoming’s new "split-estate" law was meant to give property owners more control over energy development on land where the underlying minerals are owned by someone else, usually the federal government. Now, the law has hit a huge obstacle — the Bush administration.

Years of lobbying by ranchers and environmentalists persuaded the Legislature to pass the law in February (HCN, 2/7/05: Split-estate rebellion: Ranchers take on energy developers). It was intended to help landowners protect about 12.5 million acres of private land on which the federal Bureau of Land Management controls the vast majority of oil and gas leasing.

The state split-estate law holds energy companies to much tougher standards than does the BLM. It requires companies to pay landowners for any loss of income or "loss of land value" caused by drilling, for instance. That broad definition covers impacts to all aspects of ranching and farming, as well as to dude ranches, bed-and-breakfasts, and hunting and fishing operations, says Laurie Goodman, president of the Landowners Association of Wyoming, which pushed for the law.

The BLM, by comparison, requires companies to pay landowners only for damages to crops or to land improvements, such as stock ponds. In a June 13 letter to Wyoming officials, Kathleen Clarke, head of the BLM, said the state law imposes "inappropriate ... economic burdens" and potential delays on companies. So, she concluded, the state law should not apply to private lands where the BLM handles oil and gas leasing.

But Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank vows to enforce the state law on those private lands, even if it means court battles. Crank says Wyoming "doesn’t need Clarke to tell us what is and isn’t reasonable."

 

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