GILLETTE, Wyo. -- Jim Hall and his father knew it was just a matter of time before the companies holding the rights to the natural gas under their ranch came knocking. They knew, too, there was not a thing they could do legally to keep the developers off their land.
So like many of their neighbors, they began negotiating with the companies, hoping to reach a deal that would allow the developers access to gas deposits as required, while ensuring their own interests -- and land -- were not trampled in the process.
The companies agreed among other things to pay Hall to reseed land disturbed by their work and to control the spread of weeds -- neither of which they were required to do.
''It's been a good experience, in our case," Hall said.
Such voluntary agreements between landowners and natural gas developers are common in Wyoming. But now, some landowners, conservationists, and others are pushing the state Legislature to make such negotiations mandatory. They say such a law is needed to give landowners more bargaining power in dealings with developers.
''They have you over a barrel," said Jill Morrison, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a conservation group. ''You're not negotiating on a level playing field."
Montana already has a similar law on the books, but some are hoping to strengthen property owners' rights by requiring the two sides to try to reach agreement on such things as road placement and efforts to minimize dust and other disturbances.
These recent efforts have been spurred in large part by the rapid pace of coal-bed methane development in the Powder River Basin of northern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. Coal-bed methane is natural gas trapped in underground coal seams.
Across the West, owning the land does not always mean owning what is beneath it. The rights to minerals, oil, or gas often are held by someone else, including the federal government, a situation commonly referred to as a ''split estate."
Industry leaders say the requirements being proposed in Wyoming and Montana are unnecessary. They contend that energy developers commonly reach amicable agreements with landowners and that prescribing terms may just slow development.
''I don't think it will affect the way we treat landowners, but legislation creates additional steps that haven't been proven to be needed," said Susie Manicom, a spokeswoman with Tulsa, Okla.-based
Among the landowners who would welcome such a law is Steve Adami, who said he felt at a disadvantage when a company came to his ranch near Buffalo in 2003 with an agreement he contends was presented as ''nonnegotiable." Drilling has started, and Adami said his ranch now reminds him of an industrial park.
''We made financial sacrifices to own the land because we wanted the lifestyle, the privacy, and the seclusion you get with land ownership," Adami said. ''Now all that's been taken from us."
In cases where mineral or gas reserves under private property are owned by a federal agency, such as the Bureau of Land Management, energy companies are generally required to try to reach agreements with the landowner. If an agreement cannot be reached, companies must post a bond to cover damage for such things as loss of crops.
About 60 percent of the mineral and gas leases in the Powder River Basin are federally owned. Where they are not, the rules do not apply.