Suppose that the fluids injected into a disposal well migrate beyond the boundary of the tract where the well is located; does that incursion of the injected fluids into and under the neighbor's property constitute a trespass? Until recently, this question had never been addressed by a Texas appellate court, and the assumption in the disposal industry was that such incursion was not actionable. The Beaumont Court of Appeals, in FPL Farming Ltd. ("FPL") v. Environmental Processing Systems, L.C. ("EPS"), concluded that the neighbor does have a trespass claim.
The Beaumont Court of Appeals has issued two opinions in the case; the first was appealed to the Supreme Court which reversed and remanded to the Court of Appeals, and the second has also been appealed to the Supreme Court, where it is now pending. FPL Farming Ltd. v. Environmental Processing Systems, L.C., 305 S.W.3d 739 (Tex.App.-Beaumont), reversed and remanded 351 S.W.3d 306 (Tex. 2011), on remand 383 S.W.3d 274 (Tex.App.-Beaumont May 24, 2012, pet. filed 1/18/13).
The facts in FPL are these: EPS operates an injection well for non-hazardous waste on land adjacent to the land owned by FPL. FPL previously objected to an amendment of EPS's permit that increased the rate and volumes allowed to be injected. The Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the permit amendment over FPL's objections, ruling that "the amended permits do not impair FPL's existing or intended use of the deep subsurface." FPL Farming Ltd. v. Tex. Natural Res. Conservation Comm'n, 2003 WL 247183 (Austin 2003, pet. denied).
FPL then sued EPS for trespass and negligence, alleging that injected substances had migrated under FPL's tract causing damage. FPL lost a jury trial and appealed. The Beaumont Court affirmed, holding that because EPS held a valid permit for its well, "no trespass occurs when fluids that were injected at deep levels are then alleged to have later migrated at those deep levels into the deep subsurface of nearby tracts." FPL Farming Ltd. v. Environmental Processing Systems, L.C., 305 S.W.3d 739, 744-745 (Tex.App.-Beaumont). The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Texas laws governing injection well permits "do not shield permit holders from civil tort liability that may result from actions governed by the permit." FPL Farming Ltd. v. Environmental Processing Systems, L.C., 351 S.W.3d 306, 314 (Tex. 2011). But the court was careful to say it was not deciding that owners of injection wells could be guilty of trespass if their injected fluids migrated onto other lands. "We do not decide today whether subsurface wastewater migration can constitute a trespass, or whether it did so in this case." Id. The court remanded to the court of appeals for it to consider the other issues raised by the appeal.
In its second opinion, the Beaumont court held that FPL did have a cause of action for trespass: "[T]he Texas Supreme Court has, by implication, recognized that the law of trespass applies to invasions occurring on adjacent property but at a level beneath the surface." Testimony was presented that the waste plume affected the briny water in place under FPL's property, "even though it was not presently using the briny water." The court said that the briny water belongs to the surface owner, and that EPS's permits did not give EPS an ownership interest in the formations below FPL's property. The Beaumont court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial, holding that the trial court's jury instruction erroneously put the burden on the landowner to prove that he had not consented to the injection under his property. Additionally, the court noted that the fact that EPS is using the deep subsurface for commercial purposes indicates that the subsurface levels at issue have economic potential for storing waste, which otherwise, absent its safe storage, has the potential to adversely affect the environment. Thus, without a trespass remedy, a party--in this case, FPL--does not have all of the legal remedies typically available to owners to protect the owner's right to the exclusive use of its property.
EPS also claimed that its trespass onto FPL's property did no actual harm. The court said that EPS had failed to show as a matter of law that no injury had occurred, and that FPL was entitled to a jury trial on that issue.
So the Beaumont court of appeals' opinion, if it stands, recognizes a trespass claim for subsurface migration of injected fluids. The fear for the industry is not necessarily a suit for damages, which may be too difficult to prove. If subsurface trespass is found to be a viable claim, potential plaintiffs could seek an injunction to stop a well from injecting fluids underground.
The Texas Supreme Court has set the case for oral argument at 9 am on January 7. You can view the oral argument online.