November 19, 2014

The Episcopal Church and the Texas Supreme Court

On August 30, 2013, the Texas Supreme Court decided two cases involving the Episcopal Church of the United States. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the cases, making the results final. (In case you're wondering, this has nothing to do with oil and gas. The cases are of interest to me as an Episcopalian.) The two cases were basically a fight over ownership of church property. The parties engaged some of the most powerful firms and lawyers in the state, and multiple amicus briefs were filed. And the cases grapple with the right to free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

There are about 4.5 million Episcopalians in the U.S. -- fewer than the number of Baptists, Methodists, Mormons, Lutherans, or Presbyterians. Episcopalians, however, are often some of the elite and most powerful members of society in the U.S. The Episcopal Church in America was founded in 1789 and is a part of the Anglican Communion, which has about 80 million members worldwide. The Church is associated with and has its roots in the Church of England, founded by Henry VIII when Pope Clement VIII refused to approve the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

The two cases decided by the Texas Supreme Court last year, The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth v. The Episcopal Church, and Masterson v. The Diocese of Northwest Texas, have their genesis in the consecration of Gene Robinson by the Diocese of New Hampshire in 2004 -- the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. In response, the Diocese of Fort Worth voted in 2007 and 2008 to withdraw from the Episcopal Church and enter into membership with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, a group of Anglican churches in South America. And the Diocese claimed to still own the properties of the churches within the Diocese of Fort Worth. (Three churches in the Diocese did not agree with the Diocese's action and withdrew from the Diocese; the Diocese transferred property used by those churches to them.)

Meanwhile, in San Angelo, the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd voted (53 to 30) to withdraw from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Northwest Texas and to form a new church, the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd. And it claimed to own its church property.

In both cases, the trial court, after hearing the parties' arguments, ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church, holding that the Fort Worth Diocese and the Church of the Good Shepherd could not keep church property when they left the Episcopal Church. The Texas Supreme Court reversed in both cases, holding that they could.

The Episcopal Church argued that it was a "hierarchical" church, meaning that it is structured with a central organization -- the General Convention of the Episcopal Church -- at the top, Dioceses -- geographic regions headed by a Bishop -- below that, and individual churches, or parishes, at the bottom. It argued that all church property is held by each individual parish church in trust for The Episcopal Church, and that any congregation which severed its ties with The Episcopal Church lost its right to manage the Church's property. The Canons of The Episcopal Church provide that "All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. The existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remains a part of, and subject to, this Church and its Constitutions and Canons."  When Good Shepherd Church in San Angelo was formed, it agreed in its petition for formation that its members were "conscientiously attached to the Doctrine, Discipline and Worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States."

The majority opinion in the Good Shepherd case agreed that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution "severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving church property disputes," and prohibited civil courts from inquiring into matters concerning "theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of a church to the standard of morals required of them."  It quoted the U.S. Supreme Court's prior decision that "whenever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them."

The majority of the court nevertheless held that title to church property was a matter of state law, not ecclesiastical law, and that, under Texas law, the church properties belong to the individual churches and are not held in trust for the benefit of The Episcopal Church. Two justices dissented.

Disputes within church organizations arise from time to time, resulting in schisms and fights over church properties. Protestant churches divided during the Civil War. Churches have disagreed over ordination of women. Last week, the Anglican Communion voted to allow women to be appointed as bishops.

The relation between church and state also pops up in other ways -- for example, the recent dispute over application of provisions of the Affordable Care Act to church-affiliated hospitals. Courts will continue to struggle with these issues as long as the Constitution stands and citizens continue to worship their gods.

November 12, 2014

The Fall in Oil Prices

The news is filled with stories predicting the effect of falling oil prices on US production.  Good news for the economy, bad news for the Texas oil and gas industry. Will the rig count fall? Will companies go into bankruptcy? Only time will tell.

The answer may depend on OPEC. OPEC countries produce about one-third of the world's total oil each month. OPEC countries have about 80 percent of the world's oil reserves. Predictions of OPEC's demise are greatly exaggerated. But US production has increased to almost 9 million barrels a day, close to Saudi Arabia's production. Texas is responsible for a big part of that increase:

Texas production chart.PNG

Clearly the increased US production, combined with the predictable decline in demand and the slowdown of China's and Europe's economies, is affecting the world oil price. OPEC convenes on November 27, and pundits are guessing what it will do. On October 29, OPEC's Secretary-General Abdalla El-Badri, cautioned calm, after a conference in London: "We don't see really fundamental changes in the supply side or the demand side.  Unfortunately everyone is panicking. The press is panicking, consumers are panicking. We really should think and see how this will develop."

El-Badri has a point. Looked at over the long term, as shown below, this may be but another adjustment in world prices.

EIA gas and oil price chart.PNG

Not all OPEC countries are the same. Some countries will be squeezed by oil prices below $80:

OPEC price squeeze.PNG

So far, the falling oil price appears to have had little effect on drilling activities in Texas. The Texas Petro Index published by the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers reached 312.3 in September, up 6% over last September. The Baker Hughes rig count in Texas was 902 in September, up from 837 rigs in September 2013. But the US rig count dropped by 4 rigs to 1,925 for the week ended November 7, although horizontal rigs gained 9 to 1,362.

One analyst, Gavekal Dragonomics, says that, if oil prices continue to fall, "drilling activity is likely to decline." But the negative effects on the energy sector will be outweighed by the positive effect on US consumers. Lower prices will lift net exports. And each one-cent drop in gasoline prices puts $1 billion in the pockets of consumers over a one-year period.

Dr. Harold Hunt, professor at the Texas A&M Real Estate Center, recently presented an analysis of how falling oil prices affect the Houston economy. Here is a link to the Powerpoint of his presentation: Hunt_S_TX_College_Oct__2014___.pdf  Dr. Hunt notes the declining cost of drilling in the Eagle Ford, lowering the break-even price of oil:

Well Costs - Hunt.PNG

 

Down-sizing of well spacing has also maximized the value of Eagle Ford acreage:

Well spacing.PNG

Dr. Hunt also notes the increased rates of initial production in the Eagle Ford, but also the increase in decline rates of those later wells:

EIA increased production rates over time.PNG

 

His conclusion: 80% of shale oil resources in the US can make money with oil at $50 to $80 per barrel:

Hunt break-even.PNG

Much depends on where the acreage is in the play. There are good sections and bad sections in the Eagle Ford, as in all fields. Those producers on the margins will suffer at $80 prices. And investors may be more wary of putting their money in areas with higher risk.

November 3, 2014

Trespassing on the Mineral Estate

Last week the San Antonio Court of Appeals decided Lightning Oil Company v. Anadarko, No. 04-14-001152-CV, a case involving "mineral trespass."  What is interesting about the case is what the court did not decide.

Lightning Oil Company owns two oil and gas leases covering 3,250 acres within the Briscoe Ranch in Dimmit County. The Briscoe Ranch owns the surface but not the minerals in this 3,250 acres. To the south of Lightning's leases is the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area, a wildlife sanctuary managed by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. TPWD owns the surface and 1/6 mineral interest in the Chaparral WMA. The Light family (some of whom own Lightning Oil) own the other 5/6 mineral interest. Anadarko holds oil and gas leases on the Chaparral WMA.

The TPWD lease to Anadarko prevents use of the surface of the Chaparral WMA for oil and gas wells except with TPWD consent, and says that Anadarko must use off-site drilling locations "when prudent and feasible." Anadarko made an agreement with Briscoe Ranch to use the surface of the Ranch to drill horizontal wells under the Chaparral WMA. The first location Anadarko chose is located on the land covered by the Lightning Oil Company leases. So Anadarko proposed to drill a horizontal well from a surface location on Lightning's lease; the well would penetrate the Eagle Ford formation on Lightning's lease, but no perforations, or "take points," in the well would be located on Lightning's lease.

Lightning sued Anadarko to prevent it from drilling its well, and it sought a temporary injunction to stop the well while the case was pending. After a hearing on Lightning's application for temporary injunction, the trial court refused to grant the injunction, and Lightning appealed.

The opinion of the San Antonio Court of Appeals (Lightning Oil Co v. Anadarko.pdf ) affirmed the trial court, holding that Lightning had failed to prove a probable, imminent and irreparable injury if Anadarko is allowed to drill its well.

To obtain a temporary injunction, the plaintiff must prove that it can probably prevail when a trial on the merits of its case is held, and that it probably will suffer irreparable injury if the temporary injunction is not granted to maintain the status quo until trial on the merits.

Lightning alleged that Anadarko's well would trespass on Lightning's mineral estate. Anadarko argued that its well would not result in a trespass.  The Court of Appeals decided not to address that question. Instead, it focused on whether Lightning's evidence showed that it would probably suffer irreparable harm if the well were drilled. After reviewing the parties' testimony, the Court held that Lightning's evidence failed to show probable irreparable harm. The testimony, said the Court, only showed a "potential" for injury, and Lightning failed to show that the potential injury would not be "susceptible to quantification and compensation."

The more interesting question in this case is the one the Court of Appeals elected not to address -- whether the drilling of Anadarko's well would constitute a trespass.  In my experience, operators routinely obtain permission from the surface owner to locate well pads off-lease, but do not consider it necessary to obtain consent of the mineral owner. The general theory is that the owner of the surface estate owns the land from the surface to the center of the earth; the owner of the mineral estate owns only the oil, gas and other minerals under the land. Under this theory, a mineral trespass can occur only if a well actually produces (or perhaps harms) the oil, gas or other mineral under the land. Following this line of reasoning, drilling a well through a formation capable of producing oil or gas would not constitute a mineral trespass. And the right to grant permission to use the surface estate for an off-lease location, under this theory, belongs to the surface owner.

October 29, 2014

Texas Tribune Unique Look at Texas Oil Boom

The Texas Tribune has created an unusual interactive website with stories about life in the oil patch and the effect of the boom on the lives of those who live and work in the areas affected. Take some time and explore it.  http://apps.texastribune.org/shale-life/eagle-ford-air/ 
October 27, 2014

Chesapeake v. Hyder

Chesapeake has asked the Texas Supreme Court to hear its appeal of Chesapeake v. Hyder, decided by the San Antonio Court of Appeals in March of this year. The Supreme Court has asked the parties to file briefs on the merits, and Chesapeake filed its brief last week. Although the Court has not yet agreed to hear the case, its request for briefs is an indication that the Court may do so.

I wrote about the Hyder case when it was decided last March. Since then, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has decided two other Chesapeake cases, Chesapeake v. Potts and Chesapeake v. Warren, ruling in Chesapeake's favor in both cases. All three cases involve deduction of post-production costs from royalties. Multiple cases have been filed against Chesapeake challenging its post-production-costs deductions, because of its aggressive method of calculating those costs. In all three cases, Chesapeake relies heavily on a Texas Supreme Court case decided in 1996, Heritage Resources v. NationsBank. The Texas Supreme Court has not discussed its opinion in Heritage since it was decided. Hyder may be its opportunity to do so.

The oil and gas lease in Hyder provides that "the royalty reserved herein by Lessors shall be free and clear of all production and post-production costs and expenses." It also states 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 provision of this Lease." The Court of Appeals held that the lease prohibited Chesapeake from deducting transportation costs.

The Court of Appeals opinion has an interesting discussion of Chesapeake's structure for marketing and selling its gas. The owner of the lease is Chesapeake Exploration, LLC. Chesapeake Operating, Inc., drills and operates the wells and pays the royalty. Chesapeake Energy Marketing, Inc., buys the gas from Chesapeake Operating (as agent for Chesapeake Exploration). Chesapeake Midstream Partners, LP gathers the gas from the leases and delivers it to pipelines owned and operated by unrelated parties. Those pipelines in turn deliver the gas to purchasers, who pay Chesapeake Energy Marketing, Inc.

A recent investigative report by Pro Publica describes how Chesapeake spun off its subsidiary, Chesapeake Midstream Partners (which became Access Midstream), in the process raising $4.76 billion.  According to the report, Chesapeake sold its network of gathering lines in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Louisiana, Texas and the Midwest to Access, and entered into an agreement with Access for Access to gather and transport Chesapeake's gas. Over a ten-year period, Chesapeake pledged by this contract to pay Access enough in fees to repay Access's purchase price plus a 15 percent return on the investment. The agreement also provides for Access to pay Chesapeake for use of certain Chesapeake equipment. According to the report, the result of these transactions was to greatly increase Chesapeake's cost of gathering its gas, to an average of 85 cents per mcf. That gathering cost greatly increased the deductions on Chesapeake's royalty owners' checks. In effect, it could be argued that Chesapeake has monetized some of its gas reserves by locking itself into a long-term gathering agreement with Access, in exchange for a $4.76 billion payment from Access, and in the process created an inflated gathering charge which can be passed on to its royalty owners.

In June, attorneys in Pennsylvania filed suit against Chesapeake, seeking certification of a class action on behalf of Pennsylvania royalty owners, alleging that the system used by Chesapeake for marketing its gas constitutes a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. (Complaint can be viewed here.) The lawsuit claims that  "defendants, under the guise of Chesapeake's subsidiaries' agreements with lessors, exploited deductions language from the lease agreements to, among other things, shift repayment of Chesapeake's off-balance sheet loan from Access Midstream to the lessors."

October 20, 2014

Steadfast v. Bradshaw - Supreme Court and NPRI's

Last week the Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Steadfast Financial v. Bradshaw, No. 13-0199. The case presents the court with another opportunity to grapple with an issue that Texas courts have struggled with since the court first addressed it in 1937 - what duty does the owner of the mineral estate owe to a non-participating royalty owner?

The term "non-participating royalty owner" is the name commonly given to a royalty interest in minerals created by a grant or reservation in a deed.  "Non-participating" is really redundant; it means that the holder of the royalty estate has no right to lease the mineral estate or to receive any bonus for a lease.  In fact, that is true of all royalty interests. A better name for this type of royalty interest might be "fee royalty interest," to distinguish it from a royalty interest reserved by the mineral owner in an oil and gas lease.

The owner of a fee royalty interest, having no right to lease or to drill wells, is dependent on the owner of the mineral estate out of which his/her royalty interest must be paid; the royalty interest has no value unless the mineral interest is leased and wells are drilled. In recognition of this fact, court decisions have imposed a duty on the mineral owner to protect the royalty owner's interest. How this duty is defined, and in what situations the duty is imposed, have been issues Texas courts have struggled with for many years. The cases that have addressed this issue over the years show how the common law develops -- very slowly, and with varied results for the litigants involved.

In Steadfast, Steadfast Financial owned the surface and mineral estates in 1,800 acres of land in Hood County. In 2006, Steadfast entered into a transaction with Range Resources: it sold the surface estate to Range for $8,976,600, and it granted an oil and gas lease to Range providing for a 1/8th royalty. At the time, Betty Lou Bradshaw owned a royalty interest in the 1,800 acres that she had inherited from her parents. When her parents sold the land in 1960, they reserved a royalty interest of 1/2 of the royalty; in other words they were entitled to 1/2 of any royalty reserved by the mineral owner in any oil and gas lease covering the 1,800 acres. 

When Ms. Bradshaw learned about the Steadfast-Range transaction, she sued Steadfast and Range. She claimed that the going royalty rate for oil and gas leases in Hood County in 2006 was 1/4th, and that Steadfast had a duty to her to get the best royalty it could obtain. She alleged that Steadfast and Range had conspired to breach Steadfast's duty to her, and that Range should be liable for its participation in Steadfast's scheme. She argued that Steadfast got a much better deal on its sale of the land to Range by agreeing to reduce the royalty rate in its lease to Range from 1/8 to 1/4.

The trial court threw out all of Ms. Bradshaw's claims, but the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held that she was entitled to a trial and remanded the case to the trial court.  Bradshaw v. Steadfast Financial, 395 S.W.3d 348 (Tex.App.-Fort Worth 2013). Steadfast appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. You can view the oral arguments in the Supreme Court here.

The Texas Supreme Court first considered the mineral owner's duty to a royalty interest owner in Schlittler v. Smith, 101 S.W.2d 543 (Tex. 1937), where it described the mineral owner's duty as one of "utmost fair dealing."  One of the most important Supreme Court cases on the topic is Manges v. Guerra, 673 S.W.2d 180 (Tex. 1984), involving the infamous Clinton Manges. Manges leased the minerals under his ranch in Duval County to himself for 1/8th royalty, and then sold the lease, reserving an additional 1/8th royalty for himself. The Court held that in doing so he breached his duty to the Guerras, who owned a royalty interest in the ranch. The Court held that Manges breached his "duty of utmost good faith" to the Guerras.

More recently, the Supreme Court has grappled with the mineral owner's duty to royalty owners in In re Bass, 113 S.W.3d 735 (Tex. 2003) and Lesley v. Veterans Land Board, 352 S.W.3d 479 (Tex. 2011). In Bass the Court held that a mineral owner has no duty to the royalty owner to grant an oil and gas lease. In Lesley the Court appeared to backtrack on what it had held in Bass, holding that a mineral owner does have a duty to a royalty owner to lease under some circumstances.

The lawyers arguing for Steadfast and Range said that Steadfast had no duty to Ms. Bradshaw to obtain the highest royalty rate it could, and that Steadfast should have the right to enter into a lease with 1/8th royalty and the highest bonus it could negotiate, even though the result would be to lessen Ms. Bradshaw's share of production. Bradshaw's attorney said that such a rule would be contrary to the substantial body of case law that had recognized a duty of "utmost good faith" owed by the mineral owner to its royalty owner. Questions from some members of the Court indicated that they were reluctant to require Steadfast to negotiate the best royalty it could obtain. If the Court decides to rule against Ms. Bradshaw, it could show an increasing reluctance by this Court to impose implied covenants or higher standards of conduct in the relationship between mineral and royalty owners in Texas.

October 9, 2014

Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Appeal of Trail Enterprises v. City of Houston

Trail Enterprises' efforts to collect an inverse condemnation judgment against the City of Houston have finally come to an end. The US Supreme Court has refused to hear its case. Trail Enterprises' story is instructive to parties who may be thinking of challenging cities' decisions to ban drilling within their boundaries.

The dispute has a long history.  Lake Houston is a major source of drinking water for the City of Houston. In 1967, the City passed an ordinance restricting the drilling of new oil and gas wells in a "control area" around the lake. That restriction has remained in place except for an eleven-month gap in 1996-97, when the lake was annexed into the City and the City passed a new ordinance protecting the lake. 

In 1995, Trail Enterprises, an owner of mineral interests in the restricted area around the lake, sued the City, claiming that the 1967 ordinance restriction amounted to a "taking" of the mineral interests in violation of the US Constitution. The trial court dismissed that suit, and the Houston Court of appeals affirmed. Trail Enters., Inc. v. City of Houston, 957 S.W.2d 625 (Tex.App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1997, writ denied). In 1999, Trail sued again, this time arguing that the City's 1997 ordinance resulted in a taking of its property. The trial court held that the ordinance did not constitute a taking. This time the Houston Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case for a trial. Trail Enters., Inc. v. City of Houston, 2002 WL 389448 (Tex.App.-Houston [14th Dist.] Mar. 14, 2002, no pet.). But the parties decided to dismiss that case.

Finally, in 2003, Trail, joined by other mineral owners, filed suit a third time. In 2005 a trial was finally held and a jury awarded the plaintiffs $19 million. But the trial judge dismissed the case on the ground that the plaintiffs had never applied to the City for a drilling permit.  That order was again appealed. The appeal was transferred to the Waco Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court's dismissal. Trail Enters., Inc. v. City of Houston, 255 S.W.3d 105 (Tex.App.-Waco 2007). Trail appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court. City of Houston v. Trail Enters., Inc., 300 S.W.3d 736 (Tex. 2009). This time, the trial court, after another evidentiary hearing, entered judgment against the city for $17 million.

The City appealed again, and in an opinion in 2012 the Houston Court of Appeals held that no "compensable taking" had occurred and reversed the trial court's judgment.  City of Houston v. Trail Enters., Inc., 377 S.W. 3rd 873 (Tex.App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2012). Trail sought review by the Texas Supreme Court, but in October last year that court refused to hear the case.  And this week, the US Supreme Court also refused to hear Trail's appeal. After 19 years, Trail's efforts have finally come to naught.

Why such a tortuous fight through the courts? One reason is the very murky law of inverse condemnation. The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution provides: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." The US Supreme Court has struggled mightily over the years to define what this means. Its seminal case on the matter is Penn Central Transp. Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104 (1978).  In that case, the court attempted to define when a government's restriction of use of private property was so onerous as to require the government to pay the property owner -- when governmental restrictions amount to a "taking" of private property. The court's decision in Penn Central laid out a three-part test. Under this test, a court must evaluate a regulatory takings claim based on (1) the economic impact of the regulation, (2) the owner's "reasonable investment-backed expectations," and (3) the character of the regulatory action. Those words don't mean much until fleshed out by subsequent cases, and the factors are fuzzy and subjective. So inverse condemnation cases like Trail Enterprises become very fact-specific analyses, and the subjectivity of the test sometimes allows the biases of court judges to emerge.

I'm no expert on takings law. But recent developments in Texas and other states, centered around municipalities' increasing efforts to restrict drilling for oil and gas within their limits, may end up in takings cases like Trail Enterprises. The mineral owners' extreme difficulty in getting a final determination of their claim in Trail, and the multiple appellate opinions grappling with the takings issues, is an indication of the hurdles that other mineral owners may face in seeking compensation for cities' restrictions on drilling that affect the value of their mineral interests. In Texas, the City of Denton has a proposition on the November ballot:  "Shall an ordinance be enacted prohibiting, within the corporate limits of the City of Denton, Texas, hydraulic fracturing ...."  See "In Texas, a Fight Over Fracking," in the New York Times, Oct. 8.  Already a group of mineral owners has sued Denton over its temporary moratorium on drilling within city limits. If Denton's referendum passes, more lawsuits are a certainty. Similar bans are being passed by cities in Colorado and Pennsylvania, and the State of New York has had a moratorium on fracking since 2008. All good news for lawyers specializing in inverse condemnation suits.

October 1, 2014

New UT Study on Water Use in Oil and Gas Production

A new study published by The University of Texas' Bureau of Economic Geology compares the amount of water used in producing oil from shale plays to the water used in producing oil from conventional reservoirs. The study concludes that water use for conventional and unconventional oil production is about the same. "Comparison of Water Use for Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Oil and Gas Production versus Conventional Oil."

The study looked at water use in the Bakken and Eagle Ford plays. The ratio of water used to oil produced ranged from 0.2 to 0.4 gallons of water for each gallon of oil produced over the lifetime of a well in both plays - or 0.03 to 0.06 gallons of water per million British thermal units of energy from the oil produced. In comparison, U.S. conventional production uses from 0.1 to 5 gallons of water for each gallon of oil produced.

The study's conclusion: "the U.S. is using more water because HF [hydraulic fracturing] has expanded oil production, not because HF is using more water per unit of oil production."

According to the study, the amount of water used per mmBtu produced in the Bakken is substantially less than in the Eagle Ford: water use per well in the Bakken is about half that in the Eagle Ford, and about one-third per mmBtu of energy produced.

September 29, 2014

Texas' New Seismologist

Michael Brick has written an excellent article in the Houston Chronicle about the Texas Railroad Commission's new seismologist, David Craig Pearson. The article, "Vexed by Earthquakes, Texas Calls In a Scientist," relates the events leading up to his hiring, his background, and the RRC's initial foray into addressing the issue by proposing new rules on injection well operators.

Dr. Pearson grew up in McCamey, worked in the oil fields, studied at SMU, and worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico for 13 years. He left in 2006, returning to West Texas and ranching. He inherited some mineral rights in Upton County. When the RRC advertised for a seismologist, he applied and was hired.

So far, Dr. Pearson has published no conclusions, but the RRC has been praised for its new proposed rules. Pearson testified in August before the House Energy Resources Subcommittee on Seismic Activity that he wants to wait for reports from SMU's study of seismic and injection activity around the town of Azle, in the Barnett Shale, before drawing any conclusions. 

September 23, 2014

EPA Praises RRC

In a letter to the Texas Railroad Commission commenting on the RRC's proposed rules on curbing earthquakes caused by high-pressure injection of waste fluids, the Environmental Protection Agency "applauded the RRC's efforts to ensure it has sufficient regulatory authority to respond to any event of the type where concerns may arise." Maybe the agencies will kiss and make up? Not likely. But the EPA agrees with proposed rules published by the RRC that would require applicants for disposal well permits to submit information about the area's risk for earthquakes as part of their application. The rules also strengthen the RRC's authority to limit or halt injection from existing wells where earthquake events occur.

Initially the RRC was slow to respond to complaints about earthquakes. At one point, citizens from the town of Azle, particularly affected by earthquakes, staged a protest before the RRC at which Azle citizens serenaded the commission with their own composition based on Elvis Presley's All Shook Up.  The RRC has now hired its own seismologist, and although Commissioners are cautious about connecting earthquakes to oil and gas activity, the proposed rules are a step in the right direction.

Texas now has more than 3,600 active commercial injection wells; it granted 668 permits last year alone. Earthquakes strong enough to damage homes have occurred in the Barnett Shale region. Similar problems have occurred in Oklahoma and other regions. 

The proposed rule can be found here.  Other comments on the proposed rule can be found here. Texas Tribune article on the proposed rules is here. SMU is conducting a study of the quakes around Azle and has installed seismic stations in the area to monitor seismic activity.

September 16, 2014

Gas Contamination of Groundwater Traced to Faulty Casing

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examining eight clusters of contaminated water wells in Pennsylvania and Texas, found that the wells' contamination was either from naturally occurring gas deposits -- i.e., the gas is naturally occurring within the aquifer -- or from poor casing and cementing of nearby gas wells. The study concluded that the hydraulic fracturing of the wells was not a cause of groundwater contamination. The study was led by a researcher at The Ohio State University and included researchers at Duke, Harvard, Dartmouth and the University of Rochester. The researchers were able to "fingerprint" the gas by measuring the amount of "noble" gases such as helium included with the natural gas. The researchers were able to distinguish between the fingerprints of naturally occurring methane in the aquifers and gas from the Barnett and Marcellus Shale formations. Ohio State's press release about the study can be viewed here.

I have written previously about the ongoing battle between Range Resources and the Lipskys over the Lipskys' claims that Range's wells contaminated their groundwater. A facet of that battle is pending in the Texas Supreme Court. This new study will add fire to the debate.

September 10, 2014

An Alternative View of the Shale Boom

There are always nay-sayers who predict that the current boom, whatever it may be, will soon be a bust. Recently, however, some pretty prominent voices have cautioned that all of the rosy predictions about the future of the shale boom, US energy independence, and the continued growth of US oil and gas production are false - a bubble soon to burst.

One of those is J. David Hughes, a geoscientist with the Post-Carbon Institute. He spent 32 years with the Geological Survey of Canada, and coordinated an assessment of Canada's unconventional natural gas potential. He has authored "Drill, Baby, Drill," published last year by the Post Carbon Institute and the Energy Policy Forum. It is a pretty comprehensive review of the long-term viability of the shale plays. Some excerpts:

  • "World energy consumption has more than doubled since the energy crises of the 1970s, and more than 80 percent of this is provided by fossil fuels. In the next 24 years world consumption is forecast to grow by a further 44 percent--and U.S. consumption a further seven percent--with fossil fuels continuing to provide around 80 percent of total demand."
  • "Shale gas production has grown explosively to account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. natural gas production; nevertheless production has been on a plateau since December 2011 --80 percent of shale gas production comes from five plays, several of which are in decline. The very high decline rates of shale gas wells require continuous inputs of capital--estimated at $42 billion per year to drill more than 7,000 wells--in order to maintain production. In comparison, the value of shale gas produced in 2012 was just $32.5 billion."
  • "Tight oil plays are characterized by high decline rates, and it is estimated that more than 6,000 wells (at a cost of $35 billion annually) are required to maintain production, of which 1,542 wells annually (at a cost of $14 billion) are needed in the Eagle Ford and Bakken plays alone to offset declines. As some shale wells produce substantial amounts of both gas and liquids, taken together shale gas and tight oil require about 8,600 wells per year at a cost of over $48 billion to offset declines. Tight oil production is projected to grow substantially from current levels to a peak in 2017 at 2.3 million barrels per day. At that point, all drilling locations will have been used in the two largest plays (Bakken and Eagle Ford) and production will collapse back to 2012 levels by 2019, and to 0.7 million barrels per day by 2025. In short, tight oil production from these plays will be a bubble of about ten years' duration."

Hughes' report is filled with graphs illustrating production and consumption world-wide and by field. Here is an example:

The Haynesville, Barnett, Fayetteville, and Woodford plays, which collectively produce 68 percent of United States shale gas, are late-middle-aged in terms of the life cycle of shale plays. Unless there is a substantial increase in gas price and a large ramp-up in drilling, these plays will go into terminal decline. The prognosis for the top nine shale plays in the United States, which account for 95 percent of shale gas production, is presented in Table 2.

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Hughes also discusses the two biggest oil shale plays, the Bakken and the Eagle Ford. Together, these fields produce more than 80 percent of tight oil production in the US. "Overall field decline rates are such that 40 percent of production must be replaced annually to maintain production."

Given the EIA estimate of available well locations, the Bakken, which has produced about half a billion barrels to date, will ultimately produce about 2.8 billion barrels by 2025 (close to the low end of the USGS estimate of 3 billion barrels). Similarly, the Eagle Ford will ultimately produce about 2.23 billion barrels, which is close to the EIA estimate of 2.46 billion barrels. Together these plays may yield a little over 5 billion barrels, which is less than 10 months of U.S. consumption.

Some figures from Hughes' discussion of the Eagle Ford:

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"The future production profile of the Eagle Ford--assuming a total of 11,406 effective locations, a 40 percent overall field decline, and current rates of drilling with all new wells performing as in 2011--is illustrated in Figure 75. This yields a production profile which rises 34 percent from June 2012 levels to a peak of 0.891 million barrels per day in 2016 as illustrated in Figure 75. At this point, with all well locations drilled, production declines at the overall field decline rate of about 40 percent. The overall field decline may decrease somewhat over time after peak as wells approach terminal decline rates. This also assumes that 70 percent of the wells drilled to date have targeted the oil-rich portion of the
Eagle Ford play. Total oil recovery in this scenario is about 2.23 billion barrels by 2025, which agrees quite well with the EIA's estimate of 2.46 billion barrels.157 Average well production falls below 10 bbls/d in this scenario by 2021."

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Hughes' report provides a wealth of data and puts the "shale boom" in perspective. He may be overly pessimistic, but he certainly makes one think about the world's unsustainable thirst for hydrocarbons.

September 3, 2014

Potts v. Chesapeake

Last month I wrote about two cases recently decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in which Chesapeake defeated royalty owners' efforts to prevent it from reducing their royalties by deducting post-production costs. One of those cases is Potts v. Chesapeake. The plaintiffs in that case have asked the Court of Appeals to reconsider its appeal "en banc," meaning that it has asked the other judges on the court to grant its petition for rehearing and reconsider the decision of the three-judge panel who decided the case. Plaintiffs' Petition for Rehearing may be viewed here:  Potts Petition for Rehearing En Banc.pdf

Yesterday, our firm filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Potts case, on behalf of the Texas Land and Mineral Owners Association and the National Association of Royalty Owners - Texas, asking the Court to grant the plaintiff's motion for rehearing and either consider the case en banc or refer the question to the Texas Supreme Court for its consideration. A copy of our brief may be viewed here:  Potts v. CHK Amicus Brief.pdf

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, suit has been filed against Chesapeake claiming that its conduct in selling gas to its affiliate company at prices well below market, and then selling its affiliate company for a substantial profit, constituted fraud on its royalty owners in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO.  That petition can be viewed here:  Suessenbach v. Chesapeake.pdf

August 26, 2014

Flaring in the Eagle Ford

With increasing frequency, my landowner clients have complained about gas flaring, especially in the Eagle Ford Shale.  Landowners are beginning to insist that their leases require royalty payments on flared gas. Landowners also complain of the odors and noise from gas flares.

The San Antonio Express News has recently published a four-part series, Up in Flames,  on flaring in the Eagle Ford, after a year-long investigation. Among its findings:

  • Since 2009, flaring and venting of natural gas in Texas has surged by 400 percent to 33 billion cubic feet in 2012. Nearly 2/3 of the gas flared in 2012 came from the Eagle Ford.
  • Gas flared in the Eagle Ford resulted in more than 15,000 tons of volatile organic compounds and other contaminants into the atmosphere in 2012 -- more than was emitted by the six oil refineries in Corpus Christi.

Part Three of the Express News report focuses on the role played by the Texas Railroad Commission in regulation of gas flaring. Under RRC regulations, a company can flare gas for 10 days after a well is completed; after that, the company must apply for a permit if it flares more than 50,000 cubic feet of gas per day from the lease.  The Express News asked the RRC for records showing the 20 leases in the Eagle Ford with the most gas flared and vented in 2012, and for the permits allowing those companies to flare that gas. It turned out that seven of the 20 leases lacked the necessary flaring permits -- a fact that the RRC apparently had not noticed until the newspaper asked for the information.

The RRC's lack of enforcement of its own rules was a subject of criticism of the agency in the last Sunset Commission review of the RRC. The Sunset Commission report said that the RRC "pursues enforcement action in a very small percentage of the thousands of violations its inspectors identify each year.  Part of the reason for the large number of violations is that the commission's enforcement process is not structured to deter repeat violations. The commission also struggles to present a clear picture of its enforcement activities, frustrating the public."

RRC rules provide for a fine of up to $10,000 per day for flaring without a permit. After the Express News pointed out that seven of the 20 highest flaring leases in the Eagle Ford had no flaring permit, the RRC fined two of the companies more than $60,000 and is considering action against the others.

According to the report, the RRC could not point to a single instance when it denied a permit to flare gas -- sometimes for more than 180 days.

Most of the Eagle Ford production is oil -- some natural gas is produced with the oil, but with high oil prices and low gas prices, companies don't want to shut in wells until pipelines can be laid to gather the relatively small amounts of gas produced with the oil. So, the companies flare the gas. Burning the gas produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. If the gas is not burned completely, or if it is vented, methane and volatile organic compounds are released into the atmosphere.

Last year the RRC appointed an Eagle Ford Shale Task Force to identify and make recommendations to address issues resulting from exploration and production activities in the Eagle Ford play. One of its recommendations was to modernize state regulations, reduce waste of natural gas, and make flaring an "option of last resort." One of the commissioners, David Porter, said that he had "directed commission staff to apply a higher level of scrutiny to applications for flaring and venting operations and to shorten time frames for compliance when violations are reported."  No word yet from the Commission on how that "higher level of scrutiny" has affected flaring in the Eagle Ford.

Bottom line: operators will continue to flare gas as long as it is to their economic benefit to do so. The Railroad Commission will not deny permits to flare the gas. If landowners are able to require royalty payments on flared gas, the lessee's economic incentive to flare the gas will be reduced. Eventually, gas prices will rise, gathering lines will be installed, and flaring will decrease. Until then, flares continue to light up the night sky in South Texas.

August 19, 2014

New Newspaper for the Oil Patch

I ran across an article in the New York Times about a new publication, "The Boom," becoming popular with oil field workers in the Eagle Ford. It's a good read. And it's free online. Check out the article in the August publication, "Eagle Ford Shale Takeaways." It's a reprint of an article from Drillinginfo, based on Drillinginfo's analysis of several thousand wells in the Eagle Ford play. One conclusion from that article:

The very best Eagle Ford Shale operators produce 30% to 40% better than the median FOR THE SAME QUALITY OF ROCK, and they produce three times as much as operators at the low end. ... The implications for mineral owners in this scenario are obvious. Massive gaps in production naturally lead to large gaps in royalty payments. A 25% royalty lease with an average operator is equivalent to an 18% royalty lease with the best operators.  That same lease with the worst operators is the same as an 8% lease with the best.

 Also check out Texas Eagle Ford Shale Magazine, another digital publication catering to the Eagle Ford play.