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.

August 11, 2014

Want to Buy a Ranch?

The 520,000-acre Waggoner Ranch is for sale for $725 million -- about $1,400/acre. It is said to be the largest contiguous ranch in the U.S., and has been owned by the Waggoner family for more than 100 years.

Ownership of the Waggoner Ranch has been in litigation for more than 20 years. The suit was originally filed in 1991 by Electra Waggoner Biggs, one of the heirs, who died in 2001. Electra was a sculptor; her sculpture of Will Rogers on his horse Soap Suds is on the Texas Tech University campus. 

The colorful history of the Waggoner family was documented in an article by Gary Cartwright in Texas Monthly in 2004. It's a great read.

The ranch has its own website, www,waggonerranch.com. The ranch is located in six counties -- Archer, Foard, Knox, Baylor, Wichita and Wilbarger. Here is a map of its boundaries.  Of course it has oil, which has held the ranch together, but according to Cartwright the ranch has no groundwater.

August 7, 2014

Two Wins for Chesapeake in 5th Circuit

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans has ruled for Chesapeake in two cases, holding that it can deduct post-production costs from gas royalties. Potts v. Chesapeake Exploration, No. 13-10601, and Warren v. Chesapeake Exploration, No. 13-10619. Both cases were decided by the same three judges, and both opinions were written by Judge Priscilla R. Owen. In both cases, Judge Owen relied on the Texas Supreme Court case of Heritage Resources v. NationsBank, 939 S.W.2d 118 (Tex. 1996). Judge Owen was on the Texas Supreme Court when Heritage v. NationsBank was decided, and she wrote an opinion in that case. Judge Owen cites her own opinion in Heritage as the principal precedent for her opinions in Potts and Warren.

The Potts and Warren cases were tried in federal district court. Because Chesapeake's home office is in Oklahoma, it has the right to remove suits filed against it in Texas to federal court. Federal courts have "diversity" jurisdiction over cases between citizens of different states. In diversity cases, federal courts must follow the law of the states. No federal law is involved. So, in deciding Potts and Warren, the 5th Circuit judges were attempting to predict what a Texas court would do, following prior precedent from Texas courts -- in this case, Heritage v. NationsBank.

Heritage v. NationsBank is a seminal case in oil and gas law, some would say infamous. The question in Heritage was whether Heritage, the lessee, could deduct transportation costs for gas from royalties owed to NationsBank. NationsBank's lease provided that royalties on gas would be "the market value at the well of 1/5 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 Texas Supreme Court held that Heritage could deduct transportation costs from NationsBank's royalty. In her concurring opinion, Justice Owen said that the no-deductions proviso on NationsBank's lease was "circular" and "meaningless":

There is little doubt that at least some of the parties to these agreements subjectively intended the phrase at issue to have meaning. However, the use of the words "deductions from the value of Lessor's royalty" is circular in light of this and other courts' interpretation of "market value at the well." The concept of "deductions" of marketing costs from the value of the gas is meaningless when gas is valued at the well.

There were three opinions from the court in Heritage: a majority opinion written by Justice Baker, joined by Chief Justice Phillips, and Justices Cornyn, Enoch and Spector; a concurring opinion by Justice Priscilla Own, joined by Justice Hecht; and a dissenting opinion by Justice Gonzalez, joined by Justice Gregg Abbott.  (Cornyn went on to be Texas' U.S. Senator; Justice Abbott subsequently became Texas Attorney General and is now running for Texas Governor; Justice Owen was nominated by President Bush to fill the vacancy on the 5th Circuit left by Judge Will Garwood's retirement in 2001, but she was not confirmed by the Senate until 2005.)

Several amicus briefs were filed in Heritage asking the court to reconsider its decision, but the court refused. Justice Gonzalez, however, wrote an opinion dissenting on motion for rehearing, in which Justices Cornyn, Spector and Abbott joined. It is published at 960 S.W.2d 619. In that opinion, Justice Gonzalez said that the court was evenly divided, 4 to 4, on whether to grant the motion for rehearing. Justice Enoch had recused himself from the case, for reasons not stated, and Justices Cornyn and Spector had changed their minds, now siding with Justice Gonzalez's dissent. And Justice Phillips had decided to concur in Justice Owen's opinion rather than join Justice Baker's original majority opinion. Because a vote of 5 justices is required to grant rehearing, the motion failed. But, said Justice Gonzalez, there was no longer any majority opinion. "Because we are without majority agreement on the reasons supporting the judgment," he said, "the judgment itself has very limited precedential value and controls only this case." And, he predicted, "the Court's error in this case will have far-reaching effects on the oil and gas industry in Texas, as millions of dollars will now be placed in dispute."  His prediction has proven true.

Of the two cases decided by the 5th Circuit, Potts is the most interesting. The oil and gas lease from Potts to Chesapeake provided that royalties on gas would be "the market value at the point of sale of 1/4 of the gas sold or used." It also provided:

Notwithstanding anything to the contrary herein contained, all royalty paid to Lessor shall be free of all costs and expenses related to the exploration, production and marketing of oil and gas production from the lease including, but not limited to, costs of compression, dehydration, treatment and transportation."

Another lease provision said:

Payments of royalties ... shall be based on sales of leased substances to unrelated third parties at prices arrived at through arms length negotiations. Royalties to Lessor on leased substances not sold in an arms length transaction shall be determined based on prevailing values at the time in the area.

As I have written before, Chesapeake has created a complex relationship among its affiliate companies. One affiliate, Chesapeake Operating, operates the lease for Chesapeake. Another affiliate, Chesapeake Energy Marketing (CEMI), buys the gas from Chesapeake Operating at the wellhead. CEMI gathers the gas from Chesapeake's wells and resells it to purchasers at remote points of sale. The price that CEMI pays Chesapeake for the gas is based on the weighted average price of all gas sold at those remote points of sale, less the post-production costs CEMI incurs between the wellhead and the points of sale. Royalties were paid to Potts based on that net price, so that Potts, as royalty owner, was bearing his share of those post-production costs.

Justice Owen's opinion holds that Chesapeake is entitled to pay Potts royalties net of post-production costs, relying on her own opinion in Heritage v. NationsBank. Potts argued that Heritage was distinguishable, and he pointed to the following sentence from Justice Owen's opinion in Heritage:

There are any number of ways the parties could have provided that the lessee was to bear all costs of marketing the gas. If they had intended that the royalty owners would receive royalty based on the market value at the point of delivery or sale, they could have said so.

Potts' lease provides, as Justice Owen had suggested, that his royalty shall be based on the "market value at the point of sale." But, said Judge Owen, in this case Chesapeake's sale (to its affiliate CEMI) is at the well, so the "point of sale" is on the lease, and the market value at that point is the price received by Chesapeake from its affiliate, net of post-production costs. "Chesapeake has sold the gas at the wellhead. That is the point of sale at which market value must be calculated under the terms of the lessors' lease."

I have seen many lease clauses attempting to prohibit deduction of post-production costs. Some of those clauses include language such as this: "This provision is intended to avoid the result in Heritage v. NationsBank." I've not seen a case construing such a clause. Despite Justice Gonzalez's insistence that Heritage has very limited precedential value, companies have made the most of it, and lessors continue to try to avoid it.

July 30, 2014

New White Paper on Use of Water by Texas Exploration Industry

The Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, has published a draft white paper on the exploration industry's use of water in Texas. The draft paper, "Sustainable Water Management in the Texas Oil and Gas Industry," was written by John Tintera, of the Austin firm Sebree & Tintera. Tintera, formerly executive director of the Texas Railroad Commission, is now president of the Texas Water Recycling Association.  The draft paper can be viewed here: DID264_1_073014.pdf. The Atlantic Council also has a white paper, "Produced Water: Asset or Waste?", on its website.
July 29, 2014

Jimmy McAllen's Judgment Against Forest Oil Affirmed

Jimmy McAllen's battle against Forest Oil has moved one step closer to conclusion. Last week the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals affirmed an arbitration award of more than $20 million against Forest Oil for environmental and other damages to the McAllen Ranch and personal injuries to Mr. McAllen.

The fight began in 2004, when McAllen sued Forest. He claimed that Forest had buried mercury-contaminated iron sponge wood chips on the 27,000-acre McAllen Ranch. The wood chips are waste from Forest's gas plant on the Ranch. He also claimed that he had contracted cancer from pipe containing naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) that Forest had given him to build pens on his Santillana Ranch.  The pens were built to house endangered rhinoceroses.  McAllen contracted cancer that required amputation of his leg.

Forest responded that McAllen was bound by a prior settlement agreement that required him to arbitrate any claims arising out of Forest's operations on his ranch.  McAllen opposed arbitration. The trial court denied Forest's motion to require arbitration, and the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals affirmed. Forest appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which held that McAllen was bound by the arbitration agreement. Forest Oil v. McAllen, 268 S.W.3d 51 (Tex. 2008).

So the parties arbitrated McAllen's claims before three arbitrators, one chosen by McAllen, one by Forest, and the third chosen by the other two.  Forest chose Daryl Bristow, McAllen chose Donato Ramos, and the third arbitrator was Clayton Hoover. The arbitration hearing lasted for 17 days.  The arbitrators issued a split decision, with Bristow dissenting. The arbitration award gave $15 million to McAllen for the reduced value of the McAllen Ranch resulting from Forest's contamination of the ranch, and $500,000 to Jimmy McAllen for his personal injuries. The panel also awarded $500,000 in exemplary damages and $5 million in attorneys' fees. Bristow dissented, based on his conclusion that the award interfered with the Texas Railroad Commission's jurisdiction to regulate remediation of hazardous waste associated with oil and gas production.

McAllen filed a motion in the trial court to confirm the arbitration award, which the trial court granted. Forest then appealed to the Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi.

Texas courts favor arbitration of disputes, so it is difficult to overturn an arbitration award. A court's review of arbitration awards is very limited.

The Court of Appeals first held that the award did not interfere with the Railroad Commission's jurisdiction over oil field contamination. The court made reference to sections 85.321 and 322 of Texas Natural Resources Code, the first of which expressly grants a private cause of action for damages for violation of Texas conservation laws, and the second of which provides that nothing in the law governing Railroad Commission jurisdiction "shall impair or abridge or delay a cause of action for damages or other relief that an owner of land .... may have or assert against any party violating any rule or order of the commission or any judgment under this chapter."

Forest also argued that the award should be vacated because of the "evident partiality" of Donato Ramos, the arbitrator chosen by McAllen. An arbitration award may be overturned if an arbitrator fails to disclose to the parties known facts that "might, to an objective observer, create a reasonable impression of the arbitrator's partiality." In other words, it is not the partiality per se that is objectionable, but the arbitrator's failure to disclose facts that might show his partiality. Forest said that Ramos failed to disclose that McAllen had proposed Ramos as a mediator in another suit brought by McAllen against Chevron. Evidence in the case indicated that Ramos was never told that he had been proposed as a mediator in that other litigation.  Because there was evidence that Ramos never knew he was being proposed as a mediator, the Court of Appeals held that Forest had not shown grounds for overturning the arbitration -- Ramos could not fail to disclose something that he never knew. The Court of Appeals distinguished a recent Texas Supreme Court case that did overturn an arbitration award on the same grounds, Tenaska Energy v. Ponderosa Pine Energy,  2014 WL 2139215. In that case, the arbitrator failed to disclose the full extent of his business relationship with a party's attorneys in the case.

There is some irony in Forest's complaints about the arbitration award in light of its insistence that McAllen's claims had to be resolved by arbitration. One of Forest's arguments for overturning the award was that McAllen's expert-testimony evidence of damages to the ranch would not have been admissible testimony in a trial court. The Court of Appeals cited the Texas Supreme Court's conclusion that an arbitration award need not be based on admissible evidence. "For efficiency's sake, arbitration proceedings are often informal; procedural rules are relaxed, rules of evidence are not followed, and no record is made." Nafta Traders v. Quinn, 339 S.W.3d 84, 101 (Texas 2011).

Forest is sure to seek review by the Texas Supreme Court. So Jimmy McAllen's ten-year fight with Forest is not quite over yet. 

July 23, 2014

Texas Railroad Commission Proposes New Rule on Authority of Pipelines to Condemn Private Property

The Texas Railroad Commission has published a proposed rule that will change how pipelines are classified as "common carriers" and "gas utilities." That classification determines whether pipelines can exercise the power of eminent domain -- the power to condemn rights-of-way for pipelines.

In 2011, the Texas Supreme Court held in Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas, LLC that the Railroad Commission's method of classifying pipelines as common carriers and gas utilities was not sufficient to grant them eminent domain authority. The court held that, in order for a pipeline to have condemnation powers, it must serve a "public purpose," and that in order for a pipeline to serve a public purpose, "a reasonable probability must exist, at or before the time common-carrier status is challenged, that the pipeline will serve the public by transporting gas for customers who will either retain ownership of their gas or sell it to parties other than the carrier." Once a landowner challenges its status as a common carrier, "the burden falls upon the pipeline company to establish its common-carrier bona fides if it wishes to exercise the power of eminent domain." The court held that the RRC's policy of classifying pipelines as common carriers or gas utilities based solely on the pipelines' checking of a box on a form filed with the RRC was not sufficient to establish the public purpose of the line. 

Since Denbury, the pipeline industry has struggled to find a way to efficiently establish pipelines' common-carrier status without having to litigate the issue with every landowner it wants to cross over. Initially the industry sought legislation authorizing the RRC to have one hearing to establish that a proposed new line will in fact qualify for common-carrier status. Under the bill, that determination would then be binding on all landowners whose property will be crossed by the pipeline. Those landowners would be given the opportunity to participate in the hearings; notice of the hearings would be given by publication in local newspapers. The Texas Farm Bureau, the forestry industry, and other landowner groups opposed the bill. Most major oil and gas associations favored the bill. The bill never made it out of committee.

The RRC's proposed rule essentially proposes to do the same thing that the failed bill did, with one big difference. Under the proposed rule, whenever a pipeline wants to build a new line it must file an application for a permit with the RRC. In that application, the pipeline must submit "a sworn statement from the pipeline applicant providing the operator's factual basis supporting the classification [as a common carrier or gas utility] and purpose being sought for the pipeline," and "documentation to provide support for the classification and purpose being sought for the pipeline." Once the application is complete, the RRC has 30 days to grant or deny the permit. If the permit is granted and the requested classification is approved, presumably the pipeline will have established its right to condemn right-of-way. At least that is what the pipeline industry is hoping.

The difference between the failed bill and the proposed rule is that no public notice of the permit application is given. Without public notice, there is no opportunity for those affected by the proposed pipeline to question the evidence submitted by the pipeline for the "public purpose" of the proposed line.

Comments on the rule must be submitted by August 25 to Rules Coordinator, Office of General Counsel, Railroad Commission of Texas, P.O. Box 12967, Austin, Texas 78711-2967.

July 16, 2014

More About "Allocation Wells"

Mike McElroy of the Austin firm McElroy, Sullivan, Miller, Weber & Olmstead, has written an article in the Section Report of the Oil, Gas & Energy Resources Law (Spring 2014), titled "Production Allocation: Looking for a Basis for Discrimination," defending the practice of oil and gas operators' drilling of "allocation wells."  The term "allocation well" has come to be used by staff at the Texas Railroad Commission and by the industry to refer to a horizontal well that is drilled across lease lines without pooling the tracts on which the well is located.  Mike argues that the RRC has authority to issue allocation well permits and that a standard oil and gas lease, with or without a pooling clause, authorizes the lessee to drill allocation wells.

This firm represented the complaining party in the Klotzman case, in which we argued that the RRC has no authority to issue allocation well permits and that the drilling of an allocation well violates the terms of a typical oil and gas lease unless the lease expressly grants such authority.  So, below is a rebuttal to some of the points made by Mike McElroy in his article.

Mike says that "Lessors and their lawyers see horizontal drilling and production allocation as opportunities to amend (re-trade) old leases."  The question that must be asked is, does the lease authorize the lessee to drill an allocation well? If the answer is no, then the lessee must obtain an amendment of the lease to drill the well. The lessor may bargain for consideration in exchange for granting the lessee the right to drill the well.  If the answer is yes, as Mike argues, then the lessee needs no agreement from the lessor to drill the well.

Mike agrees that a lease can prohibit a lessee from drilling an allocation well, and he quotes some provisions from recent leases that do just that.  Again, same question: would a lease that does not authorize, but does not expressly prohibit, the drilling of an allocation well grant the right to drill such a well?

An oil and gas lease requires the lessee to pay royalties on production from the leased premises or lands pooled therewith.  If a lessee drills an allocation well, it cannot comply with that obligation, because the lessee cannot determine how much of the production from the well is produced from the leased premises and how much is produced from the other tract(s) on which the wellbore is located. Mike's answer is that the lessee should just make the best estimate that it can:

An operator who has finished drilling an allocation well should closely inspect all the data gathered during those operations to determine whether there is any data demonstrating that a part of the wellbore should be treated better or worse than every other part of the wellbore. In the absence of such data, the operator should treat each drill site tract consistently, allocating production in proportion to each drill site tract's share of the open wellbore in the pay zone. ... Unless clear evidence justifies a contrary position, an operator should treat all portions of a horizontal wellbore in the pay zone in a non-discriminatory manner, thereby ensuring each owner their fair share of their rights under Texas property law.

I doubt that royalty owners will be comforted by their lessee's assurance that its allocation method is giving the lessee its "fair share" of production from the well, based on the lessee's analysis of wellbore data.

Mike argues that by drilling an allocation well the lessee is not pooling the tracts across which the well is drilled. Pooling is a method of allocating production from a well by agreement among different tracts. While most pooling clauses provide that production will be allocated on an acreage basis, the parties could agree to any method of allocation, including the one Mike advocates, based on the length of the productive lateral on each separate tract. Allocation by a production sharing agreement usually follows this method. Whether the allocation is done by creation of a pooled unit authorized by the lease or by a production sharing agreement, the result is the same: the lessors and lessee have agreed on a method of allocating production of a well among separate leases. The only difference in the case of an allocation well is that the lessee is making the allocation without any agreement of the lessors, based on the lessee's determination of what is "fair."

Mike argues that the RRC has authority to issue allocation well permits -- indeed, he says that the RRC has no authority to deny an allocation well permit.  The examiners in the Klotzman case disagreed with that conclusion. 2013-06-25 PFD EOG Klotzman (2).pdf  Although the Commissioners overruled the examiners, they did not provide any basis for their decision. No RRC rule authorizes the issuance of a permit for a well that crosses lease boundaries unless the lessee certifies that it has authority to pool the acreage to be crossed by the well. There are no RRC rules that even use the term "allocation well." The absence of regulations prohibiting issuance of a permit does not authorize the RRC to grant a permit.

I'm sure the debate will continue until the courts rule on the issue. In the meantime, it's nice to have someone like Mike to debate with.

 

 

July 9, 2014

The Declining Cost of Solar Energy

Austin Energy, the City of Austin's municipally owned electric utility, recently announced a deal with Recurrent Energy to buy up to 150 megawatts of electricity from a solar farm to be constructed by Recurrent in West Texas, at 5 cents per kilowatt hour, guaranteed for 20 years.  Austin Energy is the nation's 8th-largest municipal utility. As reported in the Austin Chronicle, the deal means that Austin Energy could reach its goal of 200 megawatts of solar power by 2020 well ahead of schedule. Austin Energy has its own solar farm in Webberville that can generate up to 30 megawatts. Austin Energy's current plans provide for increased reliance on renewable energy sources:

Austin Energy.JPG

The cost of solar electricity has now become competitive with other fuels -- although still with support from tax credits.  Austin Energy's estimate of its fuel costs:

Wind (West Texas):                 2.6-6.1 cents/kWh

Wind (South Texas):                3.6-7.5 cents/kWh

Solar (West Texas):                 4.5-11.4 cents/kWh

Combined Cycle (Natural Gas): 6-9 cents/kWh

Solar (Local):                           9.0-21.3 cents/kWh

Coal:                                       9.2-11.4 cents/kWh

Biomass:                                10-15.4 cents/kWh

Geothermal:                            10-15.1 cents/kWh

Nuclear:                                  11.6-15.6 cents/kWh

Solar beats nuclear, coal and natural gas, even at the presently low cost of natural gas.

If Austin Energy gets 250 megawatts of solar on line, it will constitute about 10% of its total capacity. Two hundred fifty megawatts can supply electricity for about 125,000 Austin residences under normal conditions.

Austin Energy also has contracts for 850 megawatts of electricity from wind.

The availability of wind and solar power to Austin was largely made possible by the state's CREZ project, the construction of transmission lines from West Texas over the last several years to make wind and solar resources, abundant in West Texas, available to the urbanized areas around Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Houston. At a cost of $5 billion, the CREZ lines will eventually transmit more than 18,000 megawatts of power from West Texas and the Panhandle to metropolitan areas of the state.

July 7, 2014

Texas and the EPA

The State of Texas and the EPA have been at loggerheads on energy policy and federal regulation for some time. The latest blast from Texas comes in response to the EPA's new proposed regulations to limit carbon emissions from power plants.  On June 2, the EPA published proposed rules that would require states to develop a program to reduce their carbon emissions. Under the proposed rules, each state is given a target for emissions reductions by 2030. Texas' target: to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 38 percent by 2030. States are given broad flexibility in how to achieve their assigned target.

Texas emitted 656 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2011, nearly twice as much as California, and about 12 percent of the nation's total. Power plants in Texas emit about 40 percent of Texas' carbon dioxide. Texas generates more electricity than any other state, and a large portion of that comes from coal plants.

EPA measures states' emissions of carbon dioxide in pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity produced. Texas emits about 1,284 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity produced. More than 30 other states emit more carbon per megawatt-hour than Texas. Under EPA's proposal, 13 other states must make a larger percentage reduction in emissions per megawatt-hour than Texas, including Washington, Oregon and New York.

Governor Perry called the proposed regulations a part of the Obama administration's "war on coal," and said that the new regulations would devastate an important industry and "only further stifle our economy's sluggish recovery and increase energy costs for American families."  But in an Austin American Statesman article, Asher Price quotes Michael Webber, deputy director of UT's Energy Institute, as calling the EPA proposal a "hug to Texas from Obama." Texas has abundant natural gas, wind and solar resources, which could easily replace coal-fired power plants, resulting in a boon to Texas' economy, according to Weber. Asher quotes Jim Marston, head of Texas' office of the Environmental Defense Fund, as saying: "If Rick Perry were governor of West Virginia," a coal-dependent state, "I could see why he might say this could harm the state's economy some. The fact he's from Texas and criticizes this rule is simply crazy."

A New York Times article, "Taking Oil Industry Cue, Environmentalists Drew Emissions Blueprint," says that the proposed EPA regulation is based largely on a proposal drawn up by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The proposal is highly innovative in leaving details to the states, but also more vulnerable to legal attack. Asher Price's article quotes Scott Tinker, head of the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, as saying that top-down regulation like that proposed by the EPA has not significantly reduce carbon emissions in other parts of the world. At the end of the day, Tinker said, "Will (the EPA regulations) even matter?"

An op ed piece in the American Statesman by Roger Meiners, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Arlington, criticizes the EPA proposal, saying that Obama's "war on coal" will only harm the economy and that carbon emissions from coal will increase in other countries and increase fuel prices. He advocates government programs to encourage carbon capture projects.

July 2, 2014

Texas Railroad Commission's New GIS Viewer Up and Running

In the last legislative session, the Texas Legislature gave the Texas Railroad Commission money to upgrade its website. The RRC's new GIS Viewer is now available for use.  http://wwwgisp.rrc.state.tx.us/GISViewer2/  This map-based access to RRC information on wells, pipelines and records makes it much easier for the public to access RRC records.

One of its tasks that the RRC does well is provide easy access to its records. It has always been one of the most open and accessible regulatory agencies in the state, and it goes to great lengths to make its records easily available to the public. Its new GIS Viewer greatly enhances this capability.

There is as yet no tutorial on how to use the new Viewer, but if you play with it for a while, you will see how easy it is to use.  When you open it, you see a map of the State, with the RRC' district boundaries shown.

Viewer 1.JPG

You can select a county from the menu at the top of the page to zoom in on that county.

Viewer 2.JPG

 

Then use your mouse to navigate within the county and find the area you are interested in. When you zoom in far enough, you will see symbols for wells.

Viewer 3.JPG

 

Click on one of the well symbols, and you can access the information available for that well, including permits, completion reports, and well production, and images of all of the filings for that well.

Viewer 4.JPG

 

You can also use a well's API number to find the well. A well's API number is a unique number assigned to every oil and gas well in the U.S. A complete API number for the well identified above is 42-177-32136. On the Viewer, the first two numbers are not used, and the dash between 177 and 32136 is not used. To search for this well using its API number, type 17732136 in the search box in the upper right-hand corner of the Viewer.

Viewer 5.JPG

Press enter, and the map zooms to the well.

The map has different layers that can be turned on and off to view particular items. For example, below are the layers showing pipelines and land survey boundaries.

Viewer 6.JPG

 

Hover over a pipeline and you will see its operator and what commodity the pipeline is carrying.

The Viewer is still being enhanced, and additional data will be included.

The Commission is to be congratulated on its work in providing this valuable tool.

 

June 26, 2014

Amarillo Court of Appeals Refuses to Apply Accommodation Doctrine to Groundwater

Last week, the Amarillo Court of Appeals issued its opinion inn City of Lubbock v. Coyote Lake Ranch, LLC, No. 07-14-00006-CV, holding that the accommodation doctrine did not apply to restrict the City's use of Coyote's land to develop the City's groundwater under the land.

In 1953, the City of Lubbock bought the rights to groundwater under the land now owned by Coyote Lake Ranch. In that deed, the City acquired all groundwater rights, and "the full and exclusive rights of ingress and egress in, over and on said lands so that the Grantee of said water rights may at any time and location drill water wells and test wells on said lands for the purpose of investigating, exploring, producing, and getting access to percolating and underground water." The deed granted the right to lay water lines, build reservoirs, booster stations, houses for employees, and roads, "together with the rights to use all that part of said lands necessary or incidental to the taking of percolating and underground water and the production, treating and transmission of water therefrom and delivery of said water to the water system of the City of Lubbock only."

In 2012, the City proposed a well field plan for the property and began testing and development under that plan. Coyote sued, asking for a temporary injunction to halt the City's activity. Coyote claimed that the City failed to accommodate Coyote's existing uses of the property (the opinion does not say what those uses are), and that the City could use alternatives that would lessen damage to Coyote's use of the land. The trial court granted the temporary injunction, holding that Coyote was likely to be able to show at trial that the City's plan could be "accomplished through reasonable alternative means that do not unreasonably interfere with [Coyote's] current uses." The City appealed from that order.

In the Court of Appeals, the City made two arguments: first, it argued that the accommodation doctrine does not apply to the relationship between the owner of the surface and the owner of groundwater. Second, it argued that the express language in the water rights deed would prevail over general accommodation doctrine principles.

The Court of Appeals reversed, agreeing with the City that the accommodation doctrine does not apply to limit the rights of holders of groundwater rights. The Court said that the Texas Supreme Court has not extended the accommodation doctrine to groundwater, and that "changes in the law should be left to the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Legislature."

The accommodation doctrine was developed to ameliorate the harsh results of the rule that the mineral estate is the dominant estate and mineral owners have the right to use as much of the surface of the land as is reasonably necessary to explore for and extract minerals, without compensation to the surface owner. The doctrine requires the mineral owner to accommodate existing surface uses where that can be done using established industry practices. The Court's opinion does not provide any logical reason why the accommodation doctrine should not apply also to severed groundwater rights. Indeed, the City's use of Coyote's land to develop its groundwater might be more intrusive than would surface use for development of mineral rights under the land.

The opinion does not address the City's second argument, that the express language in its deed granting the City extensive rights to surface use should make the accommodation doctrine inapplicable. Many deeds granting or reserving mineral interests contain express language granting the mineral owner the right to use the surface estate for oil and gas exploration and development. I have not seen a case involving the accommodation doctrine in which the mineral owner contended that the express language in its deed granting access rights prevailed over the accommodation doctrine.

Severance of groundwater from the surface estate is not as common in Texas as severances of minerals. But with increased demands for and value of groundwater, such severances will become more common, and other conflicts between the surface owner and the owner of groundwater will likely arise. I expect that the Texas Supreme Court will have to address the applicability of the accommodation doctrine to severed groundwater rights in the near future.

June 23, 2014

Texas Supreme Court Decides Key Operating v. Hegar

The Texas Supreme Court last week decided Key Operating & Equipment, Inc. v. Hegar, No. 13-0156, reversing the courts below and holding that Key Operating has the right to use a road crossing Hegar's tract to produce from a well on adjacent lands.

The legal principle the Court applied is not surprising and did not substantially change existing precedent. But the unusual facts of the case illustrate how far the Court will go to protect the rights of mineral lessees when those rights conflict with interests of the surface owner.

The legal precedent the Court followed is this:  when two tracts are combined to create a pooled unit, the operator of the unit has the right to use the surface of all of the land covered by the leases included in the unit to operate wells located anywhere on the unit, regardless of the location of the well.

The facts of the case are these:  Hegar bought 85 acres of land in 2002, and built a house there in 2004. The 85 acres was originally part of a 191-acre tract, the Curbo/Rosenbaum tract.  When the Hegars bought the land, 1/8th of the minerals under the Curbo/Rosenbaum tract were owned by the owners of Key Operating, who had leased the mineral interest to Key Operating. Key had a well on an adjacent tract, the Richardson #1, and had created a pooled unit including 10 acres of the Curbo/Rosenbaum tract and 30 acres of the Richardson tract. An existing road crossed the Hegar land and led to the Richardson #1. After the Hegars built their home, Key Operating drilled another well on the pooled unit, the Richardson #4, and traffic on the road increased substantially. The Hegars filed suit, arguing that Key had no right to "access or use the surface of the Hegar Tract in order to produce minerals from the Richardson Tract."  At trial, the Hegars produced expert testimony that the Richardson #4 Well was draining only 3 1/2 acres, and that the well's drainage area did not reach the Hegars' property and was not draining the Hegars' property. The trial court held that Key did not have the right to use the road across the Hegars' property to produce from a well that was not actually draining their property. The court of appeals affirmed. 403 S.W.3d 318 (Tex.App.--Houston [1st Dist] 2013).

The facts recited in the opinion reveal that Key appears to have created the pooled unit primarily if not solely to preserve its right to use the existing road to get to the Richardson #1 well. Key's owners apparently bought 1/8th of the minerals under the Curbo/Rosenbaum tract so that they could lease the interest to their own company and create the pooled unit. The opinion does not say for sure, but Key apparently pooled its lease of the 1/8th mineral interest in 10 acres from the Curbo/Rosenbaum tract even though it had no lease on the other 7/8ths of the minerals in that 10 acres. Because the new well, the Richardson #4, was not draining the Curbo/Rosenbaum tract, there was apparently no geological reason to create the pooled unit.

Even so, the Supreme Court held that, once the pooled unit was formed, Key had the right to use the Curbo/Rosenbaum tract to produce from wells on the pooled unit. The court held that

once pooling occurred, the pooled parts of the Richardson and Hegar Tracts no longer maintained separate identities insofar as where production from the pooled interests was located. So the legal consequence of production from the pooled part of the Richardson Tract is that it is also production from the pooled part of the Hegar Tract, and the Hegars do not contend that Key did not have the right to use the road to produce minerals from their acreage. Because production from the pooled part of the Richardson Tract was legally also production from the pooled part of the Hegar tract, Key had the right to use the road to access the pooled part of the Richardson tract.

So the Hegars will have to put up with the road and the traffic. They are bound by the legal fiction, found to be untrue as a matter of fact, that production from the pooled part of the Richardson tract was "legally" production from the their tract, thus giving Key the right to use its road.

A footnote in the Supreme Court's opinion raises an interesting question: "The Hegars do not argue that the Richardson lease does not grant the right to pool or that the pooling was in bad faith."  Clearly, the mineral owners under the Richardson tract could complain that the pooling of their lease with 10 acres of the Curbo/Rosenbaum tract was in bad faith because the Richardson #4 was not in fact draining the Curbo/Rosenbaum tract. But would the Hegars, who apparently had no mineral interest in their tract and no right to share in production from the unit, have standing to argue that the pooled unit was created in bad faith? The court does not say, but the footnote implies as much.

June 19, 2014

Concerns Continue of Water Well Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing

Investigations continue in response to complaints of alleged contamination of water wells from drilling activity in the Barnett Shale.

In May, the Texas Railroad Commission issued a report of its investigation of complaints of well contamination by methane in Parker County. It concluded that "the evidence is insufficient to conclude that Barnett Shale production activities have caused or contributed to methane contamination in the aquifer beneath the neighborhood."

But Parker County resident Steve Lipsky, who's complaint at the RRC caused it to conduct its new study, continues his battle with Range Resources, arguing that its wells are responsible for the methane in his water well.  Two other scientists who have reviewed the RRC test data concluded that the gas in Lipsky's water is definitely the result of fracking operations.

Lipsky's battle with Range continues in the Texas Supreme Court, where Lipsky and Range have both filed petitions for writs of mandamus. Lipsky has asked the court to dismiss Range's claims against Lipsky for defamation and business disparagement. Range accused Lipsky and his expert Alisa Rich of fabricating evidence in Lipsky's suit for damages for contaminating his well.  Range asks the court to reinstate its claims that Lipsky and his wife and Rich conspired to fabricate evidence to defame the company. The court has not yet ruled on the petitions.

Meanwhile, the University of Texas at Arlington, along with UT's Bureau of Economic Geology, are conducting a study of 550 water wells in North and West Texas, including baseline testing of wells in Nolan County using samples taken before commencement of drilling in that county, to investigate the impact of drilling and disposal operations over time. Some states, including Pennsylvania -- but not Texas -- require drillers to test nearby water wells before drilling to provide baseline data on groundwater.

June 9, 2014

Reclamation of Lands Impacted by Oil and Gas Operations

In the last century in West Texas, oil and gas exploration in the Permian Basin scarred the landscape. Below is a Google Earth view of an area of Ward County in far West Texas, showing the drilling pads and roads from oil and gas development.

Ward County Google.JPG

At the time of this development the surface of this land, dry and semi-desert, was considered relatively worthless, and the impact of oil exploration to the surface of the land was considered a small price to pay for the wealth of oil found under the ground.

Today, landowners have become more ecologically conscious and protective of the natural environment of their lands. Increasingly, oil and gas leases are including provisions requiring restoration of the surface by exploration companies. But restoration of semi-arid lands in West Texas is not a simple task and requires patience and expertise, as well as significant resources.

I recently ran across a series of publications by the University of Wyoming that describes strategies for restoring Wyoming lands disturbed by oil and gas activities. The University has created a Reclamation and Restoration Center in its College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, working with its School of Energy Resources. It has published a series of informative bulletins describing best practices for restoration of severely disturbed lands - how to preserve topsoil, re-establish plant species, and preserve natural habitat.  One bulletin describes considerations for including restoration requirements in oil and gas leases on private lands. The bulletins are online and can be found here. While Wyoming habitat is not the same as West Texas habitat, they have a lot in common.

A resource for landowners wishing to learn more about habitat restoration in South Texas is the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, which has experts on native habitat and vegetation.