March 28, 2011

News Around the Oil Patch

Items of interest recently in the news:

On March 25, the Texas Railroad Commission adopted its examiners' recommended decision finding that Range Resources was not responsible for water-well contamination in Parker County, Texas.  (For my previous posts on this controversy, go here and here.)  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which had previously entered a cease-and-desist order against Range based on its investigation of the water well contamination, issued a statement standing by its findings:  "The decision by the Texas Railroad Commission is not supported by EPA's independent, scientific investigation, which concluded that Range Rsources Corporation and Range Production Company have contributed to the contamination of homeowners' drinking water wells."  EPA has posted the full record of its investigation of Range on its website.  EPA has filed a federal suit against Range to enforce its order. "EPA stands by the order issued to Range Resources and seeks to secure Range's full compliance," said EPA's statement.  Range has filed a motion in that suit to dismiss the case, based on the Railroad Commission's findings. Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams said that "I see this as sort of a cavalier attempt by the federal government to reach its arms into our state's jurisdictions." Commissioner Elizabeth Jones said after the RRC hearing that Range's operations "have not contaminated and will not contaminate" the water wells in question. Steven Lipsky, one of the water well owners who believes that Range is responsible for the contamination, said: "It's a corrupt system. It's kind of sad."

Chesapeake Energy has entered into two more agreements to shed part of its acreage positions, one in Texas and one in Arkansas.  Chesapeake agreed to sell all of its Fayetteville Shale leases in Arkansas to mining giant BHP Billiton for $4.75 billion cash. Chesapeake entered into an agreement with Clayton Williams Energy to transfer 75% of its 75,000 acres of leases in the Wolfbone play in Reeves County to Williams, in exchange for Williams' agreement to drill at least 20 wells in the first year, with an option to drill 20 more earning wells every year over the next four years.

Investment firm Harrington Investments, Inc., a firm specializing in socially responsible investing, announced that it is divesting its entire holding in Chesapeake Energy because of (1) 109 citations against Chesapeake by the Pennsylvanie Environmenta Protection Department for "environmental health and safety" violations, and (2) The poor record of Chesapeake in executive compensation.  In 2008, Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon was paid a $77 million bonus in a year when the stock price fell 60 percent. Harrington also noted that "McClendon funneled $450,000 to [Pennsylvania] gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett via the State Republican Leadership Committee. Since Corbett's victory, Chesapeake has obtained 839 Marcellus Shale drilling permits in Pennsylvania, more than any other company, and has drilled at 126 sites, making it the second-biggest operator in the region."

A report issued by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the American Clean Skies Foundation has recommended that electric utilities enter into more long-term contracts for the purchase of natural gas.  Prior to natural gas shortages in the 1980's, utilities traditionally entered into long-term gas purchase contracts with producers with fixed prices, or prices that were adjusted periodically. Because of gas price volatility, state regulators of electric utilities discouraged the utilities from entering into such long-term contracts and encouraged purchases on month-to-month contracts based on market or spot prices. Today, most gas is sold on mont-to-month contracts. The report, from a task force including executives from Dow Chemical, The Willliams Companies, Spectra Energy, the American Gas Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Southern Company, ConocoPhillips, and Pacific Gas & Electric Company, concludes that because of a near 50% increase in gas reserves and and an increase of nearly 700 billion cubic feet of new gas storage capacity in the past decade, utilities are shifting their emphasis to gas-fired generation instead of building new coal-fired generation or retrofitting coal plants to cut emissions.  The reports says that utilities should include long-term gas contracts in their portfolio of energy supplies, and it encourages state utility regulators to emplement policies that encourage such long-term contracts. "Realizing and maximizing these benefits [of greater gas supply], however, will require that investors have confidence in the mid- to long-term stability of natural gas prices," says the report.  The complete report can be found here.

March 17, 2011

Texas Supreme Court Rules Against Citizens Complaining of Injection Well

The Texas Supreme Court has reversed a decision of the Austin Court of Appeals holding that the Texas Railroad Commission must consider traffic issues in deciding whether to issue a permit for an injection well to Pioneer Exploration, Ltd. in Wise County. In its decision, the Court held that, in considering whether issuance of the permit was "in the public interest," the RRC need not consider the adverse impact on roads and traffic caused by truck traffic to and from the injection well.

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March 10, 2011

More About Hydraulic Fracturing in the News

The EPA has issued its draft plan to study the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water in the U.S. Two state regulatory authorities have absolved frac'ed wells from responsibility for contaminating drinking water in Colorado and Texas. Maryland's top einvornmental regulator urged lawmakers to impose a two-year moratorium on frac'ing, as Maryland's legislature considers additional laws to regulate the practice. Meanwhile, the boom in shale gas drilling continues.

 

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February 22, 2011

Class Action to Force Companies to Reimburse Royalty Owners for Severance Tax Refunds - Coll v. Abaco

Recently some of my clients have received notices of class action settlements in Coll v. Abaco Operating, LLC, et al., in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Marshall Division, C.A. No. 2:08-CV-345 TJW. The case reveals a little-known aspect of royalty payments: many companies never reimburse their royalty owners for refunds of severance taxes.

Most royalty owners know little about severance taxes except that they are a deduction that regularly appears on their royalty check stubs. Texas imposes a tax on the value of all oil and gas produced in the state: 7.5% for gas and 4.6% for oil. Most producing states impose similar severance taxes. Pennsylvania has been debating whether to pass a severance tax in light of its budget problems and recent development of the Marcellus Shale in that state. Texas' severance taxes are paid into its "rainy day fund" that has been much in the news of late.

Continue reading "Class Action to Force Companies to Reimburse Royalty Owners for Severance Tax Refunds - Coll v. Abaco" »

February 17, 2011

Range Resources RRC Closing Statement In Parker County Water Well Contamination Investigation

Here is the closing statement of Range Resources filed with the Texas Railroad Commission after its hearing on complaints that Range's Barnett Shale wells in Parker County have contaminated groundwater.  It provides a good summary of the events to date and the evidence produced at the hearing.  Range Production Company Closing Statement.pdf

Here is a link to a summary of the Range dispute prepared by Gene Powell, Editor of the Powell Barnett Shale Newsletter.

February 8, 2011

Hydraulic Fracturing Makes the Oscars

Josh Fox's movie Gasland has been nominated for an academy award for best documentary. Gasland, widely criticized by the oil and gas industry, alleges that hydraulic fracturing is the cause of contamination of underground water resources across the country. (See my previous post about controversy surrounding the movie here.) The nomination, and the Fox's movie about the alleged dangers of frac'ing, have made him into a celebrity.

In response to the Oscar nomination, Energy in Depth, a website sponsored by oil and gas associations including the Independent Petroleum Association, Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners' Association, the Independent Oil & Gas Association, and Colorado OIl and Gas Association, has published a letter (Energy In Depth letter.pdf) addressed to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the letter, Energy in Depth calls the film an "expression of stylized fiction" not meeting the Academy's criteria for a documentary. The letter says that the movie misstates the law and the rules, mischaracterizes the frac'ing process, and "flat-out makes stuff up."

Josh Fox does not take this lying down. He has published a detailed rebuttal of Energy in Depth's letter.  Josh has own his own website, www.gaslandthemovie.com, and his own facebook page about the movie and the frac'ing debate, and he was even awarded the Yoko Ono "Grant for Peace." Clearly, he is enjoying his celebrity. Josh's rebuttal is no small refutation. It runs to 38 pages and contains responses from his "amazing team of experts," including Ron Bishop, PhD, lecturer in chemistry and biochemistry at SUNY Oneonta, Anthony Ingraffea, PhD, the D.C. Baum professor of engineering at Cornell,and Weston Wilson, a retired EPA engineer.  Energy in Depth's letter to the Academy is not likely to lessen Josh's time in the limelight and may actually increase his chances of grabbing that Oscar.

Clearly, the controversy over frac'ing is not going away soon. The Washington Post reported on Monday that the county commissioners of Garrett County, Maryland, denied a permit to Carrizo Marcellus Inc. to drill a well in the county, citing concerns about pollution from frac'ing, and the State of Maryland recenlty declined to issue permits to Chief Oil & Gas and Samson Resources to drill in Garrett County, opting to wait for improved drilling technology to protect the environment, even though, according to a spokesman for the Maryland energy department, 1800 gas wells have been frac'ed in neighboring Virginia with no reports of well water contamination.  The controversy has even reached Texas, where Range Resources is in the middle of a fight with the EPA over alleged contamination of groundwater in the Barnett Shale. If the industry wants to fight with Hollywood, it will have to do better than Energy in Depth's effort.

 

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.

December 31, 2010

Plaintiffs' Attorney Windle Turley Enters Fray on Barnett Shale Groundwater Contamination

Dallas attorney Windle Turley has filed three lawsuits in federal court in Dallas on behalf of landowners alleging contamination of their groundwater by Barnett Shale Wells: one on behalf of Jim and Linda Scoma of Johnson County, against Chesapeake, filed last June; one on behalf of Doug and Diana Harris, against Devon Energy, and one on behalf of Grace Mitchell against Chesapeake and Encana. The suits contend that plaintiffs' groundwater has been contaminated by drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations. A copy of the Harrises' suit can be viewed here.  Turley says more such suits will follow. Turley's website has a page dedicated to such suits, which says that, "when hydro-fracking occurs, it is possible for the property owner's groundwater to become contaminated and/or for gases to be forced into the groundwater. When this happens, the oil company may be liable to the property owner for property damages and injuries. ... The Turley Law Firm is very concerned over the damage done and future risk to property and individuals in the Barnett Shale area, and is filing damage suits on behalf of property owners." Groundwater contamination lawsuits may become new fertile ground for plaintiffs' attorneys.
December 29, 2010

Range Letter to EPA Denies Responsibility for Parker County Pollution

Range Resources has written to Al Armendariz in EPA's Dallas office again asserting that it is not responsible for the groundwater contamination in Parker County.  Range's letter can be viewed here:  12-27 Armendariz letter.pdf  For my previous posts on this controversy, go here and here.

Range met with EPA staff on December 15, and it says that, as a result of the meeting, Range and EPA agree that "hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett Shale cannot be the cause of natural gas occurring in the domestic water wells identified by the EPA."  Range also made clear in the letter that, while it was complying with the requirements of EPA's order, it did not believe that the EPA had authority to issue its order, since Range was not responsible for the pollution and the order was issued "without any prior notice or opportunity for Range to present important objective facts."

December 28, 2010

Brownlow Article on Eagle Ford Shale Play and the Carrizo Aquifer

Darell T. Brownlow, Ph.D, has published an article giving his analysis and opinion of the ability of the Carrizo Aquifer to supply water demands caused by fracing of wells in the Eagle Ford play.  The article was published in the newsletter of the Texas Ground Water Association, Fountainhead, and can be found here: Brownlow Article.pdf

Dr. Brownlow, a hydrologist, concludes that there is plenty of water in the Carrizo, in most places, to meet the demands for frac water. His estimates:

  • There are about 6 million acres in the Eagle Ford play, and a possible 20,000 oil and gas wells (one well per 300 acres).
  • An average frac job uses 15 acre-feet of water (4,887,765 gallons, or 115,375.5 42-gallon barrels).
  • So, the frac jobs on those 20,000 wells would use about 300,000 acre-feet of water over the life of the play.
  • Current withdrawals from the Carrizo Aquifer are about 275,000 acre-feet per year; so the entire demand for frac water from Eagle Ford wells would equal about one year's withdrawal of water from the aquifer.  At a rate of withdrawal of 275,000 acre-feet per year, groundwater management studies estimate that the Carrizo water table will drop an average of 30 to 35 feet by 2060.

Dr. Brownlow says that, if a successful Eagle Ford well makes 300,000 to 400,000 barrels of oil at $80/bbl, the return to the landowner would be $520,000 per acre-foot ($1.60 per gallon). In contrast, the return to a farmer using  the same acre-foot of water to irrigate corn, peanuts or coastal hay would be $500 to $1,000 per acre, or about $250 per acre-foot of irrigation water. "The point here is that using groundwater from the Carrizo for hydraulic fracturing in the Eagle Ford Shale has enormous economic potential for landowners, oil production companies and the entire region. Moreover, from a geologic and water planning perspective, additional impact on the aquifer appears minimal."

Dr. Brownlow is a resident of Wilson County, a cattle rancher in LaSalle County, serves on the South Central Texas Regional Water Planning Group (Region L), and was the governor's appointee to the Evergreen Underground Water Conservation District from 2000-2010.

December 23, 2010

Update on EPA Order Against Range Resources, Parker County

EPA's order against Range Resources for allegedly charging groundwater with gas from its Barnett Shale wells has caused quite a stir.

The Texas Railroad Commission has issued two news releases, one on December 7 and one on December 8.  Commission Chairman Victor Carrillo said that he has told EPA Regions 6 Administrator Al Armendariz that "EPA's actions are premature as the Railroad Commission continues to actively investigate this issue and has not yet determined the cause of the gas. This EPA action is unprecedented in Texas, and commissioners will consider all options as we move forward." Commissioner Michael Williams said "this is Washington politics of the worst kind.  The EPA's act is nothing more than grandstanding in an effort to interject the federal government into Texas business." The December 8 press release said that the Commission has called a hearing for January 10 and "expects both parties, the EPA as well as Range Resources representatives, to appear before Hearings Examiners and testify as to the allegations made yesterday." Range has said it will attend the hearing, but it understands that the EPA will not.

Continue reading "Update on EPA Order Against Range Resources, Parker County" »

December 17, 2010

News Around the Oil Patch

Recent news items of interest:

Southwest Energy and Environmental Defense Fund Developing Best Practices for Hydraulic Fracturing.

         Scott Anderson, senior policy advisor for the Environmental Defense Fund, and Mark Boling, Executive Vice President of Southwestern Energy, have begun talks to bring together representatives of energy and environmental groups to propose uniform standards for best practices for hydraulic fracturing, in hopes that such standards will be adopted by states and give the public assurance of the safety of the completion technique.    The talks have resulted in a 40-page draft of proposed model regulations to be presented to state officials, covering public disclosure of frac fluid additivies, standards for casing and cementing wells, and pressure monitoring.  An inverview of Scott Anderson on the efforts can be found here.  "It is our obligation as an industry to let [the public] know what the issues and obstacles are and show them we are willing to work with environmental groups and state regulators to come up with solutions," said Boling.

Dr. John Baen Paper on Estate Planning Opportunities for Mineral Owners.

     Dr. John Baen, a professor of real estate at the University of North Texas, has written a paper, "Contemporary Land, Oil and Gas Valuations, Estate Planning Opportunities, and Possible Strategies in the New Estate and Tax Environment," presented at the recent meeting of Texas Land & Mineral Owners' Association in San Antonio.  The paper can be found here:  John Baen Article.pdf

EPA Subpoenas Halliburton for Data on Hydraulic Fracturing

    The EPA has issued a subpoena to Halliburton to obtain a description of the additives used in its frac fluids.  Halliburton was the only one of nine oilfield services firms to refuse EPA's request for information on the content of their frac fluids. Halliburton posted a response on its website, here. Halliburton has also announced an "eco-friendly" frac fluid that has additives "sourced entirely from the food industry."

State Senator Wendy Davis Introduces Barnett Shale-Related Bills

     Senator Davis, D-Fort Worth, has introduced several bills for the 2001 legislative session aimed at issues in the Barnett Shale:

  • SB 102 - allocation of funds to monitor air quality in the region
  • SB 103 - to allow saltwater pipelines to be placed in state rights-of-way
  • SB 104 - to require operators to capture natural gas produced in testing the well instead of flaring it - "green completions"
  • SB 105 - to require that commercial salt water disposal wells be drilled to the Ellenburger formation or below
  • SB 106 - regulation of the condemnation of municipal property for pipelines, and municipal regulation of such pipelines
  • SB 107 - regarding Railroad Commission inspection of pipeline leaks and reporting results to municipal authorities

NY AG-Elect Opposes Hydraulic Fracturing

     The Attorney General-Elect of New York, Eric Schneiderman, has announced that he will oppose hydraulic fracturing in his state until it has been determined that it is a safe practice. See story here.

PA Board Approves Water Line, PA DEP Says Cabot to Pay For It

     A Pennsylvania board has voted to approve a six-mile water line costing about $12 million to provide water to residents of Dimock Township, PA.  The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection blames wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas for contaminating the residents' groundwater, and has ordered Cabot to pay for the water line. Cabod denies that its wells are the cause of the contamination. See article here.

December 10, 2010

James Fallows on the Future of Coal

James Fallows is a national correspondent for Atlantic Monthly. ( jamesfallows.theatlantic.com )  In the last few years he has lived in and written about China. He has written the cover article for Atlantic's December issue, "Dirty Coal, Clean Future." I am a big fan of James Fallows; he writes clearly about big-picture issues, is a deep thinker, and does not talk down to his readers. Mr. Fallows' article is about the future of coal as a source of energy in the world, and how China is developing "clean coal" technology.

Much has been made recently of new discoveries of natural gas in the U.S.; it has been touted as a solution to our dependence on foreign oil and as a way to reduce emission of greenhouse gases, by replacing coal-powered electric generating plants. Mr. Fallows does not write about new gas discoveries, but his discussion of the future of coal puts our domestic natural gas discoveries in perspective. Below are some excerpts from and summaries of Mr. Fallows' discussion. I recommend that you read his article in full.

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