HELENA — A Republican lawmaker's support of bills opposed by the oil industry may have cost him his day job at a law firm that represents the industry's interests earlier this year.
State Rep. Austin Knudsen said the bills were prompted by issues landowners have had dealing with oil companies, and sought to give landowners greater protections.
The O'Toole Law Firm in Plentywood planned in February to fire Knudsen over the measures.
Board of Oil and Gas Conservation Administrator Tom Richmond told oil industry lobbyist Dave Galt that Larry O'Toole planned to fire the junior law partner due to Knudsen's support of the bills.
O'Toole had been at the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation offices in Billings watching a hearing on House bills 406 and 431. He told a board employee that Knudsen may be looking for a new job, according to e-mails obtained by the Montana Environmental Information Center.
The law firm did not return a call seeking comment.
Knudsen said he heard rumors that his firing was connected to the bills, but said he didn't know they were true until he learned last week of the email exchange. The Culbertson Republican said he was told at the time that the law firm wanted him to leave because of the burden his legislative service put on the firm.
"The fact is I ran a couple of bills that were perceived as anti-oil industry and it upset some people," Knudsen said.
Knudsen served in GOP House leadership and was selected for the high-profile job of responding to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock's State of the State speech.
HB 431, passed into law, could increase the amount companies pay for damages from oil and gas development on a surface owner's land. HB 406, which died, would have increased payments to mineral rights owners who are forced under law to lease with others if their refusal to do so would prevent the development of other holdings.
"I'm not out to stick it to the industry, but these are issues I'm passionate about. I dealt with them it personally in my family and I've dealt with it with my neighbors and my clients," Knudsen said. "When you've got a section of code that's meant to protect the surface owners and there's no teeth to it, well then I think we've got a problem. That's why I brought the bill."
The Montana Petroleum Association opposed the bills at the time as a potential increase in the cost of doing business. But the group's executive director, Dave Galt, said he had nothing to do with Knudsen's firing.
"When I heard this happened I went and talked to Austin and I told him that. I thought it was an unfortunate situation. I don't operate like that and I don't believe that's the right way to operate. I told him that," Galt said.
MEIC, the environmental group that secured the emails through an information request of the state oil board, said it is troubling that a lawmaker would lose his job over political positions. Spokesman Derf Johnson said the emails also show the regulators may be too cozy with the industry it regulates.