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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.)

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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. 

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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. 

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