Private lands bills discussed at Judiciary meeting
Douglas – The Interim Joint Judiciary Committee of the Wyoming Legislature met on Oct. 25-26 in Douglas and discussed three bills that affect private landowners throughout the state.
The bills were about seismic bonding, wind collector lines and regulatory takings and largely affect landowner rights in Wyoming.
Seismic bonding protections
A bill resulting from an interim topic assigned by the Management Committee of the legislature related to seismic bonding and the negotiations that take place for seismic companies to obtain access to private lands.
“I think the importance of the bill is that, right now there is no guidance from the Oil and Gas Commission for seismic companies who want to do work on private lands,” commented Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna. “They are responsible for damages and reclamation, but there is no real guidance on bonds.”
He continued, “The companies have to negotiate a surface use agreement in good faith. If they don’t, they can go to the Oil and Gas Commission and bond onto the land.”
Magagna continued to explain that typically bonds are set low – at $2,000, regardless of the number of acres the company is seeking to utilize.
“The Joint Judiciary committee heard some outstanding testimony from landowners about the challenges they have in dealing with seismic companies, not only for damages but in negotiations,” he explained. “The companies say, ‘Accept our deal, or we’ll bond on.’ Knowing they can bond on cheaply, there is no incentive to negotiate with the landowners.”
The bill is not intended to deal with damage concerns, but instead seeks to give seismic companies some incentive to negotiate surface use agreements that are satisfactory to the landowners involved.
“The bill is intended to set a minimum bond related to the number of acres seismic companies want access to,” Magagna said.
In the bill, the minimum bond is set at $5,000 for the first 1,000 acres or portion thereof and $1,000 for each additional 1,000 acres.
With over three hours of discussion related to the bill, some minor changes were made related to where the requirements would exist in statute. However, the minimum bond provisions were maintained.
“They ended up with a bill that directs the commission to set a minimum of $5,000 and $1,000 for each additional 1,000 acres,” added Magagna.
The bill will be sent to the 2013 General Session of the Wyoming Legislature.
Brett Moline of Wyoming Farm Bureau also commented on seismic exploration saying, “I think where we really need to go is in strengthening reclamation laws.”
“It seems like the complaint is that companies come in, do damage and leave, and they aren’t reclaiming like they should,” Moline added. “I think we need to take a good look at that aspect of it.”
Wind collector lines
With wind energy continuing to be an important issue in Wyoming, the issue of wind collector lines has seen some legislation developed around it.
“Since the Wind Energy Task Force was established by the legislature, we have had a moratorium on eminent domain for wind collector lines,” explained Magagna. “It was for two years, and then extended one year. The moratorium is due to expire on June 30, 2013.”
The moratorium on eminent domain was for all pieces of wind collector systems, from the generation systems to existing transmission lines, including substations.
“We worked very hard on this because there is a real inequity,” adds Magagna. “A land owner can get wind energy, and it can be very lucrative, with payments based on the megawatts collected. If you are the neighboring landowner and companies have to go across your land with the collector systems, all you get is a one-time payment, and that is miniscule.”
He clarified that the Wyoming Stock Growers Association is in favor of wind energy and sees some solutions aside from a moratorium.
“The bill requires that companies have to negotiate voluntary agreements with 85 percent of the landowners or landowners representing 85 percent of the lands,” he said. “Several of the wind energy representatives spoke up in opposition. They felt it was an unworkable burden.”
When wind energy industry representatives were asked if they preferred a moratorium or the new proposal, they would rather continue the moratorium for two years, with the opportunity to work with landowner groups to develop another solution.
“The bill essentially extends the moratorium through June 2015,” Magagna said of the resulting bill. “It also puts the pressure on to come up with some reasonable approaches. This is an important step.”
“There was also a third bill from the Wyoming Stock Growers Association,” commented Magagna. “It is a bill dealing with regulatory taking.”
Magagna explained that Wyoming Law currently states that agencies must use a checklist when passing a regulation to determine if the regulation will result in the taking of a partial interest in private property.
“Under the law, they can take a partial interest in private property, but they have to compensate for it,” he added. “If they simply do something that devalues the land, they don’t have to.”
The bill would require that if more than 20 percent of partial interest in property was acquired as a result of a regulation, compensation would be required.
“For a state like Wyoming that is committed to protecting private property rights, it is a good bill, but there are a lot of complexities,” Magagna noted. “There are a lot of questions, and I proposed they table the bill.”
The bill was tabled and will also be recommended to the Management Committee as a topic for consideration at the next interim session of the legislature.
The bills reviewed in committee are available at legisweb.state.wy.us.
Minutes from the meeting will also be available on the site. Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.