New firm fills gap in split-estate negotiations

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As he watched the oil and gas industry expand in Northwest Colorado, attorney Ralph Cantafio thought he could see landowners being left behind.

Along with his stepdaughter, Rosanna Slingerland, Cantafio began researching oil and gas development in the corner of the state and came to think that his initial observations were correct.

"The oil and gas industry has an army of geologists and lawyers, but surface owners have no real representation or even an outlet," Cantafio said.

That was how Western Slope Energy Solutions Ltd. began. Cantafio, a lawyer with Cantafio Law Offices of Craig and Steamboat Springs, said he isn't pro-anything as far as the energy development debate goes. But the purpose of the new business is to educate owners of split estates, or property that has been divided from the minerals beneath it, and represent them during surface-use negotiations with oil and gas companies.

In Colorado, mineral owners have a dominant right over surface users. When a company leases minerals, the company has the right to access someone's private land to extract their leased property. But the company has to sign an agreement with the surface owner to use the surface land before development begins.

When negotiating a surface-use agreement, it's crucial that surface owners contact an attorney before signing anything, said DeAnna Woolston, organizer of Western Colorado Congress, an organization dedicated to increasing citizens' power in environmental issues.

"It's essential. It's not even a question of should they," Woolston said.

But there aren't many lawyers practicing this sort of law. Even in Garfield County, where the natural gas industry is growing faster than anywhere else in the state, there are as yet no businesses to represent surface owners in surface-use negotiations, said Doug Dennison, Garfield County's oil and gas liaison.

"I have not seen anyone like that spring up in this area. I would anticipate that somebody would get that idea in the county or the Craig company would expand down here," Dennison said.

Energy Solutions' target area is Moffat, Rio Blanco, Garfield, Eagle, Mesa, Delta and Gunnison counties, Cantafio said.

Western Colorado Congress is trying to remedy the deficit of attorneys who are able to help surface owners through the negotiation process. Today, the group hosted a seminar in Glenwood Springs to educate lawyers in surface-use law, but only six lawyers had registered for the seminar as of Wednesday, Woolston said.

Cantafio recognizes that his new business, which has been open since July 1, puts him on the forefront of a controversial issue, but he said his 19 years of experience as a lawyer has completely demystified the legal process for him. It's taught him some lessons, too.

"The only winners in litigation are lawyers," he said.

With that in mind, his goal is to be proactive and develop quality agreements that will never go to the courts for settlement. Too often, landowners don't even understand what a split estate is, Cantafio said. Landmen representing oil and gas companies approach landowners with a lease they say they always use and just tell the landowners to sign it, he said.

"Almost everything is up for negotiation," he said.

Some landowners have received free use of gas extracted from beneath their land, while others negotiate where roads would be built, Cantafio said. And landowners have the right to know what sort of development could occur on their land.

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