Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Bozeman Pass protected

Last week, the Gallatin County Commission approved a new zoning district, the Bozeman Pass Zoning District, in my House District 63. An emergency zoning district was created two years ago when a company bought the mineral rights on parcels in the area, planning to drill for coalbed methane.

In the intervening two years, landowners in the area championed a citizen-initiated zoning effort with an emphasis on protections from coalbed methane drilling, but state zoning regulations require other specifics for zoning districts, like density, setbacks, and access, so the residents solved those issues, too.

With dedication and perseverance, the Bozeman Pass residents crafted a zoning district that indeed offers protections from the effects of coalbed methane drilling. That's a great thing, but why did the residents have to educate themselves, organize, and craft their own protective district? Because bills failed in the 2005 Montana legislature that would have afforded protections to ALL landowners facing the practices and ill effects of coalbed methane extraction. Senate Bill 258 would have required mineral rights owners to notify surface owners of lease agreements, and it would have included a requirement that subsurface (mineral rights) owners and surface landowners reach an agreement about access and compensation for loss of the use of the land due to drilling. SB258 also would have prohibited entry onto a surface owner's land until notice had been given, and would have required a bond to be posted by the oil or gas company.

These types of protections should be provided to landowners statewide. What will people do without diligent and dedicated citizens forming their own zoning districts?

Split estates--separate parts of a piece of land owned by a surface owner and a mineral rights holder--need to be solved at the state level.

I'm grateful that citizen activists were dedicated enough to take charge of their own destiny for the Bozeman Pass area. The district they created offers protections that landowners across the state deserve. There are places in eastern Montana and along the front range of the Rockies that are primed for drilling, and for protection. I'll work for protections from coalbed methane drilling statewide as a legislator. That's what all Montana landowners deserve.

And oil and gas companies, with bonds posted for reclamation of a site, and with due consideration of surface landowners, can practice their business. Previous extraction practices have shown the dangers of the release of salinated and mineralized waters on surface lands, so we'll have to solve water discharge. We'll have to address recharging the aquifers, too. This must be done for the benefit of the state and the landowners within it, with legislation.

I and the other residents of the greater Bozeman Pass area have a vested interest in this because it's our home. Montanans have a vested interest in it because it's our state. And anywhere we can apply protections and best-practices, let's legislate to do it.