Pondering Energy and Respect

Montana’s schools are working hard to reduce bullying incidents, but energy companies that profit from Montana’s natural resources are flunking out.

My husband, Steve, and I own the surface rights of the Graham Ranch, but we do not own the mineral rights. We tried to buy them, but that was not an option.

So we went about caring for our land and building our lives, hoping no oil companies would ever wonder whether black gold rests under our piece of prairie.

This spring — right at the beginning of lambing season — we were put on notice that a company wants to find out whether they can make a profit here.

Montana’s split estate law dictates that mineral rights have dominance over surface rights. Steve and I are not the first to be dismayed by the possibility of large trucks, drill rigs and careless people ruining our land and our water so courts have upheld this law that was passed back when Anaconda Copper Mining Company so conscientiously cared for the land and people of Montana.

Today’s energy companies use ACM’s gracious diplomacy to attempt to flatten landowners into the nearest badger hole.

Steve and I asked the seismic exploration company to provide assurances that our land and the nine springs at the heart of the Graham Ranch would not be harmed.

The oil company representative promised the workers would take care of everything, but would not write down specifics.

“Oil companies today care about landowners,” the permit agent told us.

Oh, that must be why the oil industry claimed more than $20 billion in profits for the first three months of 2011.

Steve and I asked more specifically for potential financial payments for specific damages so the oil company would have significant incentives to avoid damage. After all, if oil companies care about the land, such an agreement would cost them nothing because they would do no damage.

The reply from the oil company: a single payment to be made prior to the exploration that would cover any and all potential damages, limiting their maximum liability.

In other words, they wanted to buy us off and then treat our home as if it were a dump site.

If Steve and I only wanted to make a lot of money, we would not be ranching. Instead, we might be oil company executives.

We rejected their offer.

The company’s attorney filed a restraining order against us.

We hired an attorney.

Their attorney told me that the oil company would not use such a heavy hand if we had hired an attorney sooner.

I said we would not be in this situation if the oil company had ever, even once, acknowledged our needs and concerns.

As Aretha would spell it, we would like to be treated with R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Not all energy companies bully for big bucks. We know an oil executive who treats people fairly, the way he wants to be treated. He lives here in Montana.

But many, if not most, sacrifice human decency to profit. Steve and I are only a single example of this bullying mentality that our society allows to continue.

In July alone, Montana suffered not one, but two broken oil pipelines that the oil companies have discounted as no big deal. Nobody yet knows the full impact of the Yellowstone River oil spill and the broken pipe near Cut Bank hardly made the news.

The Montana-Alberta Tie Line (MATL) apparently took lessons from Exxon. When landowners asked for reasonable requests for the placement of the electrical transmission line, instead of respectfully considering those requests, MATL executives asked Montana legislators to give them the power to flatten those property owners into a badger hole, too.

The eminent domain law passed by the 2011 legislature is wrong.

When I discussed this with a legislator, his response was that Montana would be without jobs if the legislators had not passed that law, that potential companies would look to other states for business.

I disagree.

If legislators had not passed a law that allows out-of-state companies to intimidate and disrespect Montana citizens, the companies would have to offer some respect.

I’m disgusted. The bullies should be ashamed.

Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise natural, grassfed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.

Lisa Schmidt