January 2011 Archives

January 28, 2011

The Importance of Audit Rights in Oil and Gas Leases: Shell v. Ross

I always counsel my clients to provide in their oil and gas leases that they have the right to inspect and copy all documents of the lessee necessary to determine whether royalties have been paid correctly, and to audit the records of the lessee to confirm accurate payment of royalties. Royalty owners generally assume that the royalty payments they received have been calculated and paid as required by their leases. This is not always the case, as illustrated by a recent case, Shell Oil Company SWEPI LP v. Ross, 2010 WL 670549 (Tex.App.-Houston [1st Dist.], decided February 25, 2010. The case illustrates typical schemes used by producers to underpay royalty owners, and their efforts to prevent royalty owners from knowing how royalties are calculated and, when the royalty owners discover the underpayment, to prevent royalty owners from recovering the underpayment. 

In Shell v. Ross, the trial court and Houston Court of Appeals held that Shell had underpaid royalties due to Ross.  Shell has appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.  The Texas Supreme Court refused to consider the case, but Shell has filed a motion for re hearing that is still pending. Other producers are very interested in the case:  friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed by Chesapeake, Texas Oil & Gas Association, and the American Petroleum Institute asking the Court to reverse the Court of Appeals.

The facts of the case require some explanation but illustrate well the importance of verifying the correct calculation of royalties.

 

Continue reading "The Importance of Audit Rights in Oil and Gas Leases: Shell v. Ross" »

January 24, 2011

Railroad Commission Holds Hearing on EPA Allegations Against Range Resources

Last week, a hearing was held before examiners at the Texas Railroad Commission to determine the source of water well contamination in Parker County. The Environmental Protection Agency had previously entered an emergency order finding that Range Resources was responsible for charging rural water wells with natural gas in Parker County, a finding that Range has vehemently denied. The Railroad Commission called the hearing after the EPA issued its order, to receive facts and testimony on the source of the contamination.

I have posted previously about this controversy, here, here, and here.

Range contends that the water wells are contaminated from gas migrating from a shallow gas-bearing formation just below the water table, the Strawn formation.  The EPA's order says that it did an isotopic fingerprint analysis of the gas found in the water wells matched the gas from Range's nearby wells producing from the Barnett Shale.

Range hired its own experts to do an analysis of gas from the water wells. They concluded that the gas came from the shallow Strawn sands, and that the "fingerprint" of the gas was inconsistent with gas produced from the Barnett Shale. They said the Strawn gas contains high levels of nitrogen not found in the Barnett Shale gas. Nitrogen levels of the gases were apparently not tested by the EPA. Range's expert report can be found here.

EPA representatives declined to attend the hearing. Instead, EPA filed suit in federal district court in Dallas seeking to enforce its emergency order. See copy of complaint here: Range complaint.pdf 

Range sought to depose EPA personnel involved in the investigation for the RRC hearing, but EPA has opposed Range's effort. It removed the motion for subpoena to federal district court in Austin. Last week, Judge Lee Yeakel ordered EPA to produce a representative to answer questions about the investigation. "I think we're dealing with parallel proceedings here [of the EPA and Railroad Commission] that are of extreme significance and will be significant around the country, based on the amount of publicity that [natural] gas and groundwater is getting in virtually every publication and every media outlet that there is," Yeakel said. "This has become a hot-button issue in the country." The RRC has held the record open in its hearing so that the EPA witness's testimony can be included in the record.

Range has also filed an appeal of the EPA emergency order with the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

In light of the rash of cases being filed by landowners in the Barnett Shale alleging groundwater contamination, the Range-EPA fight may have significance well beyond the water wells involved in the case. Range appears resolved to prove that it is not responsible for the contamination. The case could be the first in Texas, and maybe the first in the nation, to finally have a court determine whether there is any merit to allegations of groundwater contamination being caused by fracing of wells.

January 7, 2011

Railroad Commissioners Defend Themselves Before Texas Sunset Advisory Commission

The three current Texas Railroad Commissioners and the new incoming Commissioner David Porter all testified before the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission earlier this month, defending the RRC against criticism in the Sunset Commission staff report. The three commissioners are elected by Texas voters, and a position on the commission is often viewed as a steping-stone to higher office.  Two current commission members, Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones, both considered running for U.S. Senate when Kay Bailey Hutchinson indicated she would step down to run for Texas Governor. State Senator John Whitmire, a member of the Sunset Commission, said that their running for U.S. Senate conflicted with their duties to the Railroad Commission. "You're running for office, but while you're doing that and regulating and making decisions, you're running and actually raising money from the folks that you are regulating." The criticism mirrors the Sunset staff report, which recommends changing the law to have the RRC run by a five-member appointed board. (For my summary of the Sunset staff report recommendations, go here.) Commissioners Victor Carrillo and Michael Williams said they would support a single elected RRC to replace the three-member commission but would oppose a five-member appointed board. Commissioner Jones said she supported the current three-commissioner governance structure.

The Sunset Advisory Commission is composed of ten members: four members of the Texas House of Representatives, four Texas senators, and two private citizens:

Senate Members:

  • Glenn Hegar, Jr., Chair
  • Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa
  • Joan Huffman
  • Robert Nichols
  • John Whitmire
  • Charles McMahen, Public Member

House Members:

  • Dennis Bonnen, Vice Chair
  • Rafael Anchia
  • Byron Cook
  • Linda Harper-Brown
  • Larry Taylor
  • Lamont Jefferson, Public Member

The Sunset Commission will vote on recommendations for legislation to continue and reform the Railroad Commission at its next meeting on Wednesday, January 12.