|Rogue Corporations and the 'Split Estate'|
|Friday, 16 September 2011 00:00 | Written by Marita Prandoni | Blog Entry|
Imagine living in the Rocky Mountain west and stepping off your porch to take in pastoral fields edged with golden cottonwoods. Your view climbs to a band of aspen hemming the base of sandstone bluffs. Beyond is a cobalt-blue mountain range. Then, setting your gaze just a few hundred feet from your door, you notice wooden stakes blooming with bright orange surveyor’s tape. This is typical of how many rural residents in western states come to learn that their piece of paradise does not extend to the core of the Earth. Beneath their feet rest the profits of natural gas and oil corporations.
The San Juan Basin of the Four Corners, where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah intersect, is one of the most prolific gas-producing regions in the country, with more than 20,000 active oil, natural gas and coal-bed methane wells. Over the past decade, the lease-gobbling drilling industry has been a fast and dirty interloper. Heavy equipment and tankers rumble along dusty roads crisscrossing multi-generational ranchland and newcomers’ ranchettes. Methane gas leaks contaminate residents’ homes. Chemicals used as lubricants in “fracking”—the fracturing of rock strata to release the trapped gas—have leaked into groundwater sources. Some landowners can light a match to their tap water.
The documentary, Split Estate, examines the oil- and gas-drilling boom in the San Juan Basin and Garfield County, Colorado. Split Estate exposes the costs to the health of communities, cultural heritage and landscape, driving home the need for renewable, non-fossil-fuel-based energy sources. The film gives a personal tour of the lives of people living in this “National Sacrifice Zone,” while the industry’s cherubic spin-meisters tell outrageous lies about the safety of their operations and tout their neighborliness.
In the late 1800s during the wildcatting era, oil extraction rights belonged to anyone who pumped the oil out. The split-estate law is no improvement, making the surface estate subservient to the mineral estate, either by mineral deed or mineral reservation. A mineral deed allows a landowner to sell the subsurface rights to another party. A mineral reservation means a person can sell the land and retain the mineral rights. Federal and state governments, companies and individuals can own or lease mineral rights. In some states, these rights can revert to the landowner for reasons such as passage of time or failure to obtain production.
Late Seneca elder and historian John Mohawk documented in his book, Utopian Legacies, “One of the products of England’s Glorious Revolution was a 1688 law that designated the rights to underground minerals, previously reserved to the Crown, to the individual landowner.” So for a time at least, the English common law—the foundation for most US law—had unified the two estates.
If our lawmakers’ campaigns were not financed in large part by corporations, they would find it easier to do the right thing and reunite the split estate. They would also hold corporations to the same environmental standards individuals have to obey. This, and making the transition to renewable energy, would be a glorious revolution.