September 2011 Archives

September 29, 2011

State of Texas v. Cemex - the meaning of "minerals"

The Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso has issued its opinion in State of Texas v. Cemex Construction Materials South, LLC. The court reversed a summary judgment for Cemex and granted the State's summary judgment, returning the case to the trial court to assess damages. The State is seeking damages of $558 million.

Cemex is the world's leading supplier of ready-mix concrete, and one of the world's largest producers of White Portland Cement. Cemex is based in Monterrey, Mexico, and has operations across North and South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It has annual sales of more than $14 billion.

Cemex operates a quarry for sand, gravel and caliche in El Paso County. According to the State's petition, Cemex and its predecessors have mined about 100 million tons of materials from the quarry since 1940. Cemex bought the quarry from the British group RMC in 2005.

The State claims to own the rights to the materials mined from the quarry because the sand, gravel and caliche are "minerals" reserved by the State when the lands were originally granted in 1900, 1906 and 1912. The El Paso court held that the lands were classified as "mineral" at the time of the original grants and are therefore "mineral-classified lands," and that the sand, gravel and caliche consitute "minerals" and are therefore owned by the State as a matter of law. (See my previous article on mineral-classified lands here.)

The Court of Appeals relied on the opinion of the Texas Supreme Court in Schwarz v. State, 703 S.W.2d 187 (Tex. 1986), which held that the State owns all coal and lignite under mineral-classified lands in Texas. Schwarz is notable because it applies a different rule in determining what substances are "minerals" for purposes of minerals reserved to the State than the rule it has adopted for construction of instruments reserving "minerals" between private parties. Some substances are not considered "minerals" in a private transaction if the removal of those substances would destroy the surface estate. But the Court in Schwarz rejected this rule for classification of "minerals" reserved to the State. So, according to the El Paso court's opinion, the State owns all sand, gravel and caliche in mineral-classified lands even if mining of those substances would destroy the surface estate.

The El Paso court's opinion in Cemex does not discuss what test should be applied under Schwarz to determine whether a substance is a "mineral" and therefore owned by the State. For conveyances and reservations between private parties after June 8, 1983, whether a substance is a "mineral" is determined by the "ordinary-and-natural-meaning" test. Under this test, "other minerals" includes "all substances within the ordinary and natural meaning of that word" regardless of how they are extracted. Moser v. U.S. Steel Corp., 676 S.W.2d 99 (Tex. 1984). Limestone, building stone, sand, gravel and caliche have been held not  to be "other minerals" under this test. The court in Schwarz appears to be applying the ordinary-and-natural-meaning test in classifying lignite as a "mineral": "It is clear that the sovereign in Texas has always claimed all of the substances commonly classified as 'minerals' and only gives away those substances by an express release or conveyance." 703 S.W.2d at 191 (emphasis added). Clearly, the El Paso court did not apply this test to the State's mineral reservation:

[B]ecause the State did not unequivocally grant to the original purchasers in clear and explicit terms the dirt, caliche, sand, gravel, limestone and other minerals and materials to which Cemex now claims ownership, those items were withheld from the State's conveyances of the ... lands and any ambiguity or obscurity in the terms of the statute, such as the terms "the minerals," "stones valuable for ornamental or building purposes," and "other valuable building material," must be interpreted in favor of the State.

The El Paso court appears to be holding that any substance of economic value that can be removed from the land is a "mineral" for purposes of the State's title.

Cemex will undoubtedly be asking the Texas Supreme Court to review the case.

September 19, 2011

Fight Over King Ranch Heir's Estate - In re Estate of Belton Kleberg Johnson

Earlier this year, the San Antonio Court of Appeals issued an opinion in a case contesting the will of Belton Kleberg (B.K.) Johnson, greatgrandson of the founder of the King Ranch. Johnson died in 2001 at the age of 71. In the 1950's, Johnson was passed over to head the management of the 825,000-acre King Ranch lands, and he sold his interest in the Ranch in 1976, but kept his royalty interests.

Johnson's life and the will contest opinion give a rare glimpse into the world of the rich and powerful in South Texas. Johnson was educated at Deerfield Academy, Cornell and Stanford. He served on the board of directors of AT&T, Tenneco, Campbell Soup, the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, and several Texas banks. He was the owner of Chaparrosa south of San Antonio, where he lived and raised his family and raised registered Santa Gertrudis cattle. He owned the Hyatt Regency Hotel on the San Antonio Riverwalk, and he restored the Fairmount Hotel in San Antonio.

Johnson was married three times. He and his first wife, Patsy, had three children: Ceci, Sarah and Kley. Kley died in a car accident in 1991, survived by his wife and two children. Sarah married Steven Pitt and they have three children. Ceci married Mark McMurrey, and they have three children.

Johnson divorced Patsy in 1987, and in 1991 he married Lynne, who died of cancer in 1994. In 1996, he married Laura, to whom he was married when he died in 2001.

At the time of his death, Johnson's latest will, written in 1999, left his estate to a trust. His wife Laura was the beneficiary of the trust for the remainder of her life. The trust gave Laura the right to name Johnson's children and grandchildren as beneficiaries of up to 1/2 of the trust property (a "power of appointment"), and the other half (or the entire trust estate if Laura did not exercise her power of appointment) would go to a foundation created by Johnson, the Belton Kleberg Johnson Foundation. So the 1999 will essentially left 1/2 of his estate to his foundation, and gave Laura control over whether his children and grandchildren would get any of the other half.

Johnson's daughters and grandchildren were not pleased with the estate plan created by Johnson's 1999 will, so they brought suit contesting the will, alleging that Laura had exercised "undue influence" over Johnson to get him to sign this will. The jury found that Laura had exercised undue influence. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The court also affirmed the trial court's award of $6.1 million in attorneys' fees to the lawyers for Johnson's children and grandchildren.

Additional appeals and fights will undoubtedly follow.

September 5, 2011

Texas Railroad Commission Staff Proposes Draft Rule for Disclosure of Frac Chemicals

The staff of the Texas Railroad Commission has proposed to the Commision rules to implement House Bill 3328, passed by the last Legislature, requiring the disclosure of chemicals used in frac fluids. The rules will be subject to a period for public comment, and a hearing will be held on the rules, now proposed for Wednesday, October 5.

Earlier this year, the 82nd Texas Legislature passed HB 3328, requiring the RRC to adopt rules requiring disclosure of chemicals in frac fluids. The draft rule would require operators to disclose chemical content of frac fluids on FracFocus, a website developed by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interestate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. (The website contains a lot of good information about hydraulic fracturing and its benefits and risks.)  FracFocus was launched on April 1, 2011. As of August 16, 2011, according to RRC staff, operators had registered 950 Texas wells on the website, including wells drilled by Anadarko, Chesapeake, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, Devon, El Paso, Energen, EOG, Forest, Newfield, Occidental, Penn Virginia, Petrohawk, Pioneer, Plains, Range, Rosetta, Shell, Williams, and XTO. You can search for a well near you by using FracFocus's search feature. An example of the information disclosed can be found here:  4243935364-3212011-10792272-CHESAPEAKE[1].pdf The disclosure includes the percentage by mass of each chemical used in the frac fluid.

Under the proposed rule, an operator must also provide the same information with its completion report for the well, as part of the completion report. The completion report for all Texas wells can also be found on the RRC's website.

RRC's staff's discussion of the proposed rule estimates that 13,000 wells undergo frac treatment in Texas each year -- 85% of all wells drilled in Texas.

A supplier, service company or operator is entitled under the draft rule to claim trade-secret protection for a chemical additive. If such protection is claimed, the particular chemical and its concentration need not be provided, but the operator must disclose the chemical family of the ingrediant and the properties and effects of the chemical. The claim of trade-secret protection may be challenged by the landowner on whose property the well is drilled or any adjacent landowner, or by any state department or agency with jurisdiction over issues related to health and safety. Any such challenge must be filed within 2 years after the claim of trade-secret protection was filed. If a challenge is filed (with the RRC), the RRC refers the matter to the Texas Attorney General who makes a determination, based on evidence submitted by the person claiming trade-secret protection, of whether the identity of the chemical is in fact a trade secret under Texas law. The AG's determination may be appealed to a state district court. If a trade-secret exemption is claimed, a health professional or emergency responder may still obtain the information but must keep it confidential except to the extent it must be disclosed to protect health and safety.

An operator who fails to disclose as required by the rule may have its operating permit revoked.

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