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The EPA this week published a “proposed framework” for a new voluntary program for the oil and gas sector to reduce methane emissions – the “Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program.” It is part of the administration’s continuing effort to reduce emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The proposal can be found here.

I’m no expert on air emissions standards. As a citizen reading the proposal, I was struck by the increasing intensity of efforts to address emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds in the oil and gas sector.

In 1993, EPA created its Natural Gas STAR Program, a voluntary program in which oil and gas companies could commit to identify opportunities in their companies to reduce methane emissions and report on their progress. According to the EPA, Gas STAR partner companies have reported methane emission reductions of more than one trillion cubic feet through 2013.

In 2012, the EPA issued New Source Performance Standards for the oil and gas industry to achieve reductions in methane and VOC emissions.

In March 2014, the administration release its Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions as part of its Climate Action Plan.

In 2014, the industry founded the One Future program, in which member companies make commitments to achieve methane emission targets.

A good summary of EPA efforts related to methane emissions can be seen here.

In the EPA’s new Methane Challenge, participating companies would enter into a memorandum of understanding with EPA committing to specific emission reduction goals and a plan to achieve those goals, and would commit to annual reporting on their progress.

EPA is asking for comments on its proposed framework.

I have had increasing complaints and concerns voiced by clients about air emissions from oil and gas production facilities. Landowners are more frequently demanding that their lessees take steps to limit emissions and capture gas for sale that is being vented or flared. The Environmental Defense Fund has begun a series of studies to identify methane emission sources and available technology to reduce methane emissions. If the industry wants to tout natural gas as more environmentally friendly than coal, it would do well to take steps to reduce its emissions.

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When exploration began in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, it was the wild west transported to the east. Speculators sprung up and bought oil and gas leases with the expectation of selling them for a profit. The forms of oil and gas leases I saw being used in Pennsylvania were the worst I have seen in my career. Speculators paid for leases with 90-day drafts, hoping they could find a buyer for the leases in time to pay the bonuses.

But landowners soon caught on. They organized themselves, creating informal associations in geographic areas to negotiate leases as a group. The associations hired competent counsel. Large blocks of land were offered to multiple companies, forcing companies to bid against each other. Landowners educated themselves and realized that there was power in numbers.

Texas landowners, on the other hand, are an independent lot. They don’t like to give up their autonomy. They don’t like sharing their lease terms with other landowners. Every landowner thinks his lease form is the best. Landowners don’t like regulatory authorities telling them what they can and can’t do. One riot, one ranger.

In Texas’ last legislative session, three organizations representing land and mineral owners opposed legislation seeking to legalize allocation wells, House Bill 1552: Texas Land and Mineral Owners’ Association, the National Association of Royalty Owners-Texas, and Texas Cattle Raisers’ Association. Representatives and members of those associations testified and lobbied against the bill, and it did not make it out of committee. It is my opinion that the bill would have severely eroded mineral owners’ bargaining power with exploration companies. I testified against the bill.

Texas Land and Mineral Owners’ Association and NARO-Texas also filed an amicus brief this year in Chesapeake v. Hyder, a case dealing with the ability of lessees to deduct post-production costs from royalties. TLMA and NARO-Texas hired our firm and Raul Gonzalez, retired Supreme Court Justice, to file the brief on their behalf. The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled, 5 to 4, in favor of the royalty owners in that case.

TLMA and NARO-Texas both have conventions and provide educational opportunities to their members. Their boards are volunteers who work hard to protect and advance the interests of mineral owners. The organizations have relatively small membership compared to the number of mineral and royalty owners in Texas. Their budgets are small.

Texas mineral owners could learn from Pennsylvanians. Knowledge is power. There is strength in numbers. Texas mineral owners should join and support efforts of organizations like TLMA and NARO-Texas. What happens in the courts and legislature matters. There is such a thing as good government, good regulatory policy. The exploration industry in Texas has created wealth for thousands of Texans, but the interests of oil companies are not always aligned with the interests of land and mineral owners. Oil companies in Texas have powerful lobbies – witness the recent passage of House Bill 40, severely limiting the ability of municipalities to regulate oil and gas exploration in their jurisdictions. The efforts of TLMA and NARO-Texas remind legislators that oil companies don’t vote – people do. Legislators pay attention when members of those organizations engage in letter-writing campaigns to oppose or support legislation. Mineral owners in Texas should join one or both of these organizations, and get involved. It will be time and money well spent.

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Here is an excellent article by Michael Levy, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations: “Fracking and the Climate Debate,” published in the journal Democracy. A well-reasoned and balanced summary of the debates over the role of natural gas in our energy future and its potential impact on our climate. Lengthy, but well worth reading.

Levy gives a good history of recent remarkable changes in the roles of coal and natural gas in US energy:

Between 1999 and 2005, the United States had added the equivalent of 200 nuclear power plants’ worth of natural gas-fueled electricity plants, even as U.S. coal-fired capacity actually fell. But by 2007, with natural gas prices rising, the U.S. government predicted a reversal: Over the next two decades, coal-fired power plants would be built at a furious pace, while natural gas would stagnate. This would be disastrous for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: By 2030, it was predicted, the fleet of coal-fired power plants would belch three billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, massively raising U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. …

But the EIA’s predictions were proven false by the shale gas revolution:

Between 2005 and 2014, annual U.S. natural gas production increased by 36 percent, with shale gas production rising even more than total U.S. natural gas output did (other sources of U.S. gas continued to decline). In large part as a result, from 2008 to 2012, the price of natural gas dropped by a whopping 62 percent. Since the dawn of electric power, coal has been the largest source of U.S. electricity, with natural gas coming in a distant second beginning around 1960. But by April 2012, with natural gas prices at rock bottom, gas-fired power came within a hair of topping coal.

American carbon dioxide emissions simultaneously plummeted. U.S. emissions had risen nearly every year for decades, and few expected the pattern to change. But in 2007, emissions peaked. By 2012, U.S. emissions were 13 percent below their 2007 high, and at their lowest level since 1994. Emissions rebounded slightly through 2014 but remained 9 percent below their high-water mark. …

In 2014, coal provided 39 percent of total U.S. electricity to natural gas’s 27 percent. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, an independent agency of the U.S. government, projects that without new policies, it will take until 2035 for natural gas to pass coal as the top source of U.S. electricity. It also projects that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, instead of decreasing, will edge up by nearly 2 percent over the next decade.

The New York Times reported yesterday that, in fact,

Natural gas overtook coal as the top source of United States electric power generation for the first time ever this spring, a milestone that has been in the making for years as the price of gas slides and new regulations make coal riskier for power generators. About 31 percent of electric power generation in April came from natural gas, and 30 percent from coal, according to a recently released report from the research company SNL Energy, which used data from the Energy Department. Nuclear power came in third at 20 percent. A drilling boom that started in 2008 has increased United States natural gas production by 30 percent and made the United States the world’s biggest combined producer of oil and natural gas. Federal data shows that in April, the amount of electricity generated with natural gas climbed 21 percent compared with April 2014, and the amount generated with coal fell 19 percent. In April 2010, 44 percent of electric power generation came from coal and 22 percent from gas, according to SNL Energy.

This is a remarkable statistic: In April 2015, US generation of electricity from gas increased 21%, and electricity from coal fell 19%.

The debate over fracking will continue, but the world’s insatiable appetite for energy will not abate, and natural gas will continue to increase as a share of our energy supply. The industry would do well to consider Levy’s caution that it act responsibly by reducing emissions and pay attention to the environmental impacts caused by its activities.

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Representative Drew Darby, Chair of the Texas House Committee on Energy Resources, wrote the members of the committee to ask their input on issues that should be addressed by the committee during the interim between legislative sessions. A copy of the letter can be viewed here: Darby letter.

Of the 33 energy-related bills referred to the committee, it reported 22 favorably, nine were passed by the legislature, and two of those were vetoed by the governor – so seven became law. They are described in Darby’s letter.

Darby mentions two issues he believes should be suggested to the Speaker of the House as “Interim Charges” for the committee to study:  allocation wells and oil equipment theft. The legislature passed House Bill 3291, which would have increased penalties for oil-field theft, but the governor vetoed it, declaring it “overly broad.” Darby also reminds the committee that the Texas Sunset Commission will be reviewing the Texas Railroad Commission during the interim, and he expects the Sunset report to be a “significant focus of the Committee next session.”

Rep. Tom Craddick’s bill on allocation wells, House Bill 1552, did not make it out of the House Energy Committee, but lobbyists for the industry strenuously lobbied for the bill. Representatives of the University of Texas System and the Texas General Land Office testified that the bill would have cost UT and the State hundreds of millions of dollars a year in lost revenue. Representatives of the Texas Land & Mineral Owners’ Association, the Texas Cattle Raisers’ Association, the National Association of Royalty Owners – Texas, and others testified against the bill as unnecessary and contrary to established legal precedent.

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Residents of DISH, Texas were awarded a victory by the Amarillo Court of Appeals in their long-running fight with pipeline companies. Sciscoe et al. v. Enbridge Gathering (North Texas), L.P., et al., No. 07-13-00391-CV. In an opinion issued on June 1, the court held that the plaintiffs are entitled to a trial on their claims that the pipelines’ gathering and compression facilities caused damages to their properties from noise and emissions that constituted trespass and nuisance.

DISH residents have fought the pipeline companies for years. The companies constructed several compressors and a metering station just outside the town between 2005 and 2009. Residents began to complain of excessive noise and offensive odors and said they suffered adverse health effects. In 2008, the residents complained to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which conducted monitoring in 2009 and 2010 and concluded that emissions from the compressors “would not be expected to cause short-term adverse health effects, adverse vegetative effects, or odors.” The Texas Department of State Health Services performed medical tests on 28 DISH residents for exposure to chemicals, and tested tap water; it found no evidence of exposure to chemicals. Those findings were contradicted by tests conducted by Plaintiffs’ expert, Wolf Eagle Environmental, which found that Plaintiffs were exposed to harmful emissions of benzene, xylene, ethyl benzene, toluene and other harmful chemicals.

Finally, 18  DISH residents sued the pipelines in 2001 for damages, alleging nuisance and trespass. The town of DISH also filed suit, seeking damages for the loss of tax revenue resulting from reduced property values caused by the compressor station.

The Plaintiffs’ suits were consolidated into one suit and the case was transferred from Denton to Fort Worth. The trial court then granted the pipelines’ motions for summary judgment and dismissed all claims. The Plaintiffs’ appeal was transferred to the Amarillo Court of Appeals.

The court of appeals held that the Plaintiffs had properly pleaded claims for nuisance and trespass and remanded the case to the trial court for trial.

The pipelines first argued that the migration of airborne chemicals from their facilities across Plaintiffs’ properties cannot constitute a nuisance, because nothing was “deposited” on Plaintiffs’ properties. The court of appeals disagreed: “the migration of airborne particulates can constitute an actionable trespass.” At trial, Plaintiffs “must establish causation, i.e., that the particulates emanated from the activities of Appellees and that Appellants sustained some compensable injury as a result thereof.”

The pipelines argued that their activities cannot constitute trespass or nuisance because they were conducted within governmental regulations, and imposing liability for lawful activities would allow judicial regulation of activities sanctioned by statute and regulation. The court disagreed. Plaintiffs are not seeking to alter or change emission standards, or to prohibit the plaintiffs’ conduct, but only damages caused by that conduct. “Just because Appellees are operating their natural gas compression facilities within the applicable regulatory guidelines does not mean that Appellants have not suffered compensable injuries as a result of those operations.” The court held, however, that Plaintiffs’ efforts to recover damages for any future diminution in the value of their properties or “damages” of $1,000 per day for trespass would be barred, because those claims “look more like a penalty than a claim for recovery of existing actual damages.

Finally, the pipelines argued that Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by limitations, because they knew or should have known of their claims more than two years prior to filing suit. Without any real analysis, the court held that the pipelines had failed to carry their burden of showing that Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by limitations.

Last year, two juries awarded damages against two operators based on nuisance claims. With more drilling and producing activities in populated areas, such claims are bound to continue.

Calvin Tillman, former mayor of DISH, has since set up his own environmental company, ShaleTest, www.shaletest.org, described on its website as “the only organization that provides free and certified environmental testing to those negatively impacted by natural gas development.” Tillman lists Josh Fox as one of the company’s “advisors.” Fox is infamous for his film Gasland, a much-criticized anti-industry documentary.

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Energywire has been following the political implications of the University of Oklahoma’s study of the causes behind the huge increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma, and OU’s relationship with Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources. In a recent investigative article, Energywire reported that “University of Oklahoma officials were seeking a $25 million donation from billionaire oilman Harold Hamm last year, records show, at a time when scientists at the school were formulating the state’s position on oil drilling and earthquakes.” OU initially “came up with a position that squared with Hamm’s, saying most of the hundreds of earthquakes rattling the state are natural and not caused by the oil industry.” Hamm turned down the donation request, and OU’s Geological Survey subsequently changed its position and now says that most earthquakes in Oklahoma are “very likely” triggered by oil and gas activities.

Earthquakes in Oklahoma have increased from 20 with a magnitude of 3.0 or greater in 2009 to 585 in 2014, and Oklahoma is now expected to have more than 800 such quakes this year.

OU’s president, David Boren, a former senator, serves with Hamm on Continental’s board of directors and according to Energywire has received $1.6 million from the company since 2009. Hamm has pressured OU to avoid linking quakes to injection of produced water in Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, here in Texas, scientists from Southern Methodist University issued a peer-reviewed study of quakes around the town of Azle in the Barnett Shale, concluding that quakes there were probably caused by two salt water disposal wells near the town. Those scientists recently participated in a panel discussion about earthquake activity in Texas organized by Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton. In response to the SMU study, the RRC scheduled two hearings, requiring the operators of those SWD wells, Enervest and XTO, to appear and show cause why their disposal wells should not be shut down.

RRC show-cause hearings are conducted before hearings examiners, who act as administrative law judges and make recommended decisions to the commissioners. At the Enervest and XTO hearings, the companies offered sworn testimony and arguments that SMU’s study was flawed and that their disposal wells did not cause the Azle quakes. The examiners admitted the SMU study as evidence over the objections of the companies’ attorneys. No SMU scientist appeared at the hearings. The examiners have not yet issued their proposal for decision.

Separately, the RRC concluded that disposal wells in Johnson County, also in the Barnett Shale, were not the cause of a 4.0 magnitude quake in that county on May 7. After the quake, the RRC ordered five disposal wells in the area shut down for testing. After analysis of the tests, the RRC issued a statement, concluding: “At this time, there is no conclusive evidence the disposal wells tested were a causal factor in the May 7 seismic event. The tests were conducted to help determine the effect of injection operations on pressures within subsurface rock formations.”

Science and politics do not make good bedfellows.

 

 

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The Texas Supreme Court has ruled 5 to 4 that Chesapeake cannot deduct post-production costs from the Hyder family’s gas royalties.

The case in the Supreme Court actually addresses only the Hyders’ overriding royalty. As part of the Hyders’ oil and gas lease, the Hyders agreed that Chesapeake could use their land to drill horizontal wells producing from their neighbors’ land — the surface location on the Hyders’ land, but all of the productive lateral of the well under the neighbor’s property. In exchange, Chesapeake agreed to pay the Hyders a 5% royalty on production from such wells. Because the Hyders have no mineral interest in the lands from which these wells produce, the parties referred to this royalty as an overriding royalty.

The Hyders’ lease contains very specific provisions prohibiting Chesapeake from deducting post-production costs from the Hyders’ royalty on production from their lands. But the lease provision granting the overriding royalty on production from wells bottomed under their neighbors’ property is not so clear. Although Chesapeake originally fought to deduct post-production costs from both the royalties and the overriding royalties, the trial court and court of appeals ruled for the Hyders on all claims, and Chesapeake elected to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court only on the issue of deductibility of post-production costs from the Hyders’ overriding royalty.

The lease provision granting the overriding royalty calls for “a perpetual, cost-free (except only its portion of production taxes) overriding royalty of five percent (5%) of gross production obtained” from wells bottomed under neighbors’ land.” The lease also provided that “Lessors and Lessee agree that the holding in the case of Heritage Resources, Inc. v. NationsBank, 939 S.W.2d 118 (Tex. 1996) shall have no application to the terms and provisions of this Lease.”

Justice Hecht wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Green, Johnson, Boyd and Devine. The parties’ arguments in their briefs and at oral argument focused on what was meant by “cost-free (except only its portion of production taxes).” Chesapeake argued that “cost-free” refers only to production costs. The Hyders argued that an overriding royalty is by definition free of production costs, so “cost-free” must refer to post-production costs. Justice Hecht said that “We disagree with the Hyders that ‘cost-free’ … cannot refer to production costs. … But Chesapeake must show that while the general term ‘cost-free’ does not distinguish between production and post-production costs and thus literally refers to all costs, it nevertheless cannot refer to post-production costs.”

Chesapeake made another argument, based on the requirement that the overriding royalty be based on “gross production.” It reasoned that “gross production” meant all gas, measured at the well when produced, so the value of that production must be measured at the wellhead, and any costs incurred thereafter must be shared by the royalty owner. The overriding royalty is expressed as a fraction of “gross production,” a royalty payable in-kind. Chesapeake argued that, if the Hyders elected to separately market their share of the gas, they would have to incur those post-production costs to get the gas to market, so the parties intended that the Hyders should bear those costs if Chesapeake sold the gas and paid the Hyders their 5% share of proceeds.  Hecht disagreed. “The fact that the Hyders might or might not be subject to post-production costs by taking the gas in kind does not suggest that they must be subject to those costs when the royalty is paid in cash.” Hecht concluded that “‘cost-free’ in the overriding royalty provision includes post-production costs.”

Four justices dissented. Justice Brown wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Willett, Guzman and Lehrmann. The dissenters agreed with Chesapeake that, because the overriding royalty was on “gross production,” the Hyders had to bear post-production costs. They concluded that “Though the overriding royalty may not have been expressed using the familiar market-value-at-the-well language, I read its value as being just that. Cf. Heritage, 939 S.W.2d at 131 (Owen, J., concurring).” Further discussing Heritage, Justice Brown said:

As recognized in Heritage, royalty clauses that purport to modify a royalty valued at the well are inherently problematic. 939 S.W.2d at 130 ((Owen, J., concurring)(“The concept of ‘deductions’ of marketing costs from the value of the gas is meaningless when gas is valued at the well.”). Here, no post-production costs have been incurred at the time of production, and it means nothing to say that the overriding royalty is free of those yet-to-be incurred costs.

In short, Justice Brown gave controlling effect to the “gross production” language, while Justice Hecht gave controlling effect to the “cost-free” language.

Justice Hecht’s opinion is interesting in its discussion of two other lease provisions. Although the case before the court did not encompass whether Chesapeake could deduct post-production costs from the Hyders’ royalty, Justice Hecht discussed the royalty clause. One of the provisions in the royalty clause states that the Hyders’ royalty shall be

free and clear of all production and post-production costs and expenses, including but not limited to, production, gathering, separating, storing, dehydrating, compression, transporting, processing, treating, marketing, delivering, or any other costs and expenses incurred between the wellhead and Lessee’s point of delivery or sale of such share to a third party.

Remarkably, Justice Hecht considered this language “surplusage”:

The gas royalty in the lease does not bear post-production costs because it is based on the price Chesapeake actually receives for the gas through its affiliate … after post-production costs have been paid. Often referred to as a ‘proceeds lease’, the price-received basis for payment is sufficient in itself to excuse the lessors from bearing post-production costs. And of course, like any other royalty, the gas royalty does not share in production costs. But the royalty provision expressly adds that the gas royalty is ‘free and clear of all production and post-production costs and expenses,’ and then goes further by listing them. This addition has no effect on the meaning of the provision. It might be regarded as emphasizing the cost-free nature of the gas royalty, or as surplusage.

Another provision in the Hyders’ lease disclaimed the holding in Heritage v. NationsBank:

Lessors and Lessee agree that the holding in the case of Heritage Resources, Inc. v. NationsBank, 939 S.W.2d 118 (Tex. 1996) shall have no application to the terms and provisions of this Lease.

The royalty clause in Heritage  provided that Lessor’s royalty is

1/5 of the market value at the well of the gas so sold or used, provided, however, that there shall be no deductions from the value of the Lessor’s royalty by reason of any required processing, cost of dehydration, compression, transportation or other matter to market such gas.

The court in Heritage held that the lessee could deduct transportation costs from the royalty, and that the “no-deductions” proviso was “mere surplusage.”

The Hyders argued that the “Heritage disclaimer” clause in their lease showed the parties’ intent that their overriding royalty should be free of post-production costs. Justice Hecht disagreed:

Heritage Resources does not suggest, much less hold, that a royalty cannot be made free of post-production costs. Heritage Resources holds only that the effect of a lease is governed by a fair reading of its text. A disclaimer of that holding, like the one in this case, cannot free a royalty of post-production costs when the text of the lease itself does not do so. Here, the lease text clearly frees the gas royalty of post-production costs, and reasonably interpreted, we conclude, does the same for the overriding royalty. The disclaimer of Heritage Resources’ holding does not influence our conclusion.

The dissent also discussed Heritage.  Justice Brown notes that, unlike the gas royalty clause, the oil royalty clause in the Hyder lease provides for payment based on the “market value at the well” of the oil, just as in Heritage.  Justice Brown questions Justice Hecht’s conclusion that the “Heritage disclaimer” in the Hyders’ lease should have no effect even as applied to the oil royalty clause: “The disclaimer could be interpreted as a belt-and-suspenders attempt to ensure the ‘free and clear’ language is given effect despite its conflict with the oil royalty’s market-value-at-the-well definition.” In other words, the Heritage disclaimer might not be “surplusage.” But the four dissenting justices would nevertheless in effect follow Heritage. They would give effect to the “gross production” language in the overriding royalty clause, and would hold that this term is equivalent to the “at the well” clause in the Heritage royalty provision; and they would then hold that, because the overriding royalty is to be valued “at the well,” the language making the overriding royalty “cost-free” is, under Heritage, surplusage.

So, what should royalty owners and their counsel take from these opinions?

This firm filed an amicus brief in Hyder on behalf of the Texas Land and Mineral Owners’ Association and the National Association of Royalty Owners-Texas, in which we urged the court to clarify how royalty clauses should be construed in relation to post-production costs, and how much, if at all, the court’s prior decision in Heritage v. NationsBank should be relied on as precedent. Unfortunately, this case does not provide much guidance. Justice Hecht does note in a footnote that, on rehearing in Heritage, the court re-aligned itself, and one justice recused himself. The result, not mentioned in the footnote, is that the court was evenly divided on whether the Court’s original opinion was correct. And Justice Hecht’s opinion does say that “Heritage Resources holds only that the effect of a lease is governed by a fair reading of its text.” Perhaps this is Justice Hecht’s way of saying that Heritage has little precedential value where the text of the royalty clause differs from that in Heritage. But the continued power of Heritage is reflected in the fact that four justices dissented and would hold that Heritage requires a reading of the Hyder overriding royalty clause that would allow Chesapeake to deduct post-production costs, despite its “cost-free” language.

One lesson royalty owners and their lawyers should take away from Hyder: a “Heritage disclaimer” clause in a lease, without more, will not insulate the royalty owner from post-production costs.

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Yesterday the Texas Railroad Commission held the first of two scheduled show cause hearings called by the RRC to determine whether two salt water disposal wells near Azle, Texas should be shut down because they caused earthquakes in the area. The earthquakes in that region of Parker County are the subject of a recently published study by scientists at Southern Methodist University, which concluded that the quakes were probably caused by the injection wells. One of the wells is owned by XTO Energy, the other by Enervest. Enervest’s show cause hearing is scheduled for next week.

The XTO hearing was before two hearings examiners, Marshall Enquist and Paul Dubois. Hearings examiners act as administrative law judges in RRC hearings; they then propose a decision to the three commissioners, who can either accept or reject their proposed decision.

Only XTO appeared at the hearing, represented by their attorney Tim George, who called three witnesses and introduced more than 30 exhibits. XTO argued that the earthquakes were natural phenomena not caused by their injection activities. No witnesses appeared to oppose XTO’s position. A staff attorney at the RRC did ask some questions of XTO’s witnesses and offered the SMU study as evidence, over XTO’s objection. Tim George argued that the study was hearsay and that the scientists were not available to be cross-examined on the study. Marshall Enquist admitted the study as evidence over George’s objection, saying “in a way, [the SMU study] is why we’re here today.”

When the commissioners voted on whether to call the show cause hearings for XTO and Enervest, Ryan Sitton, the newest commissioner, opposed the order. Sitton organized a panel discussion on the SMU study at the RRC that took place last Friday, at which the SMU scientists, as well as scientists from UT, the RRC seismologist, and representatives of Enervest appeared. Sitton acted as moderator, but the other two commissioners did not attend. Enervest also argued in that panel discussion that its disposal well did not induce seismic activity, and that the SMU study is flawed.

Following the show cause hearing, the two examiners will write a proposal for decision that will be submitted to the commissioners.

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The Texas legislative session has now ended. I followed 44 bills identified as potentially affecting the interests of mineral owners. Only two of those bills passed.

HB 40

The bill that produced the most controversy was HB 40, introduced by Rep. Darby, chair of the House Energy Resources Committee. It restricts the ability of municipalities to regulate oil and gas operations within their jurisdictions. This bill and several other bills were introduced in response to the referendum passed by the City of Denton barring hydraulic fracturing. The bill allows cities to adopt ordinances related to oil and gas activity only if the ordinance regulates “aboveground activity … at or above the surface of the ground, including … fire and emergency response, traffic, lights, or noise, or imposing notice or reasonable setback requirements,” is “commercially reasonable,” and “does not effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation conducted by a reasonably prudent operator.” The bill defines “commercially reasonable” as:

a condition that would allow a reasonably prudent operator to fully, effectively, and economically exploit, develop, produce, process, and transport oil and gas, as determined based on the objective standard of a reasonably prudent operator and not on an individualized assessment of an actual operator’s capacity to act.

Continue reading →

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The Texas Legislature has passed a supplemental appropriation of $4.471 million to fund a study of the cause of recent earthquakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The money will be used to fund the purchase and use of seismic monitoring equipment and modeling of reservoir behavior, testing any connection between oil and gas activity and the recent swarms of quakes in the region.

The Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas will lead the study in collaboration with other Texas universities, including the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The legislation requires formation of a nine-member technical advisory committee to direct the study. Members of the committee must include two members from universities who have seismic or reservoir expertise, to experts from the oil and gas industry, and the Texas Railroad Commission seismologist, Craig Pearson. A report must be provided to the Legislature by December 2016.

It is notable that the Legislature chose not to entrust the study to the Texas Railroad Commission, even though industry representatives favored that position. The Commission’s three elected commissioners rely heavily on contributions from the industry to fund their campaigns, and until the recent seismic activity in the DFW region, the commissioners refused to recognize the connection between earthquakes and oil and gas production in the Azle area of the Barnett Shale. Last month, a team of scientists published a paper concluding that the Azle seismic activity was more than likely linked to salt water injection wells in the vicinity. Those scientists testified before a legislative committee about their findings.

When Dallas shakes, people listen.

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