Friday, January 11, 2008

Candy man Mars loses fight to stop drilling in Mont.

The wishes of a candy billionaire were not enough to overcome the rule of split estates or slow the race to tap coal-bed methane in Montana. Forrest E. Mars Jr., the owner and former CEO of candymaker Mars Inc., had fought companies seeking to drill for natural gas on his cattle ranch (in a Billings Gazette photo by Larry Meyer), but thanks to a court ruling, one company started drilling this week, reports Jim Robbins of The New York Times.

"The conflict is the latest skirmish in a long war between ranchers and energy companies over a natural gas known as coal-bed methane," Robbins writes. "Technology created in the 1990s allowed producers to cheaply tap natural gas that occurs near the surface in underground coal deposits. That prompted a boom in the West, especially in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming."

The legal battle hinged on the split estates created by the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 which gave ranchers the land, but the federal government the right to minerals below it. The government has leased those rights to companies, such as Fidelity Exploration and Production and Pinnacle Gas Resources, which have the rights to the resources under Mars' 82,000-acre Diamond Cross Ranch in the northern part of Montana.

Worth about $14 billion (according to Forbes magazine), Mars had fought the drilling quietly, until his ownership of the property and his role in lawsuits against the energy companies were revealed when The Associated Press reviewed a December court affidavit. (Read more)

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