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A jury has awarded damages in a second nuisance case against an operator, this time against Chesapeake Energy.  In Crowder et al. v. Chesapeake Operating Inc., case number 2011-008169-3, in Tarrant County Court at Law, the jury awarded the Crowders $20,000 for what the jury found to be a temporary nuisance – drilling operations conducted by Chesapeake in a field behind their house, where Chesapeake has drilled 13 wells. The Crowders complained of offensive odors and extensive noise. The jury failed to find that Chesapeake’s operations created a permanent nuisance, which would have entitled the Crowders to additional damages. The Crowders filed their suit in 2011.

While the jury award in Crowder will not excite plaintiffs’ attorneys to look for additional such cases — unlike the $2.9 million verdict recently awarded in another case, Lisa Parr v. Aruba Petroleum, Cause No. 11-01650-E, in the County Court at Law No. 5 of Dallas County — the case does show the viability of nuisance claims aimed at oil and gas operations near residences, especially in urban areas.

The Dallas city council recently adopted a drilling ordinance prohibiting well locations within 1,500 feet of any residence, effectively prohibiting most drilling within the city limits. The setback in Fort Worth is 600 feet. There are more than 1,700 wells in the City of Fort Worth.

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Here are two emerging technologies that could change how we might use natural gas to fuel our cars and electrify our homes and offices.

A company called Redox Power Systems is building a plant in Florida to produce The Cube, a dishwasher-sized system that generates electricity from natural gas using electro-chemical fuel cell technology. 

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With almost no moving parts, The Cube can provide enough electricity to power a gas station or a small grocery store. It also generates heat that can be used to heat a home or business. It’s technology was developed at the University of Maryland. The system also emits carbon dioxide, but according to a review by MIT, its emissions should be lower than those associated with power from the grid. Redox plans to complete a 25-kilowatt prototype and start selling complete systems by the end of this year.

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Recently my son was watching the movie “Holes,” a great adventure movie based on a book by the same name written by Louis Sacher in 1988. Sacher also wrote the screenplay for the movie, which came out in 2003. In the story, Stanley Yelnats IV, a teenager, is sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention camp, for stealing a pair of sneakers. Green Lake was a dried-up lakebed in Texas where the camp detainees were forced by the evil warden (played by Sigourney Weaver) to dig holes looking for a buried treasure. It’s a great growing-up story. 

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The movie reminded me that Green Lake is a real place in Texas that has its own fascinating legal history.

Green Lake is the largest natural fresh-water lake in Texas. Located in Calhoun County near the coast, it covers an acre of about 10,000 acres.

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The Texas Supreme Court has granted the plaintiffs’ petition to review a case important for Texas mineral owners, Hooks v. Samson Lone Star. I wrote about this case when it was decided by the Houston First Court of Appeals in 2011. The court of appeals’ opinion reversed a judgment for $21 million against Samson Lone Star in a case involving alleged bad-faith pooling and fraudulent misrepresentations by the Hooks’ lessee. The court of appeals threw out the judgment, holding that Texas Supreme Court precedent required it to hold that the Hooks’ claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations.

The statute of limitations bars claims if they are not filed within four years (or two years for some claims) of the event that caused the damages or injury for which the claim is brought. In some cases, courts have excused the delay in filing claims if the damage or injury was not discovered until a later date. Under this “discovery rule,” the statute of limitation is “tolled” until the plaintiff discovered or, with reasonable diligence, should have discovered, her injury. Also, courts have held that the statute of limitations is tolled where the defendant fraudulently conceals the facts giving rise to the damage or injury.

Over the last several years, the Supreme Court has severely narrowed the circumstances under which plaintiffs can invoke the discovery rule or claim fraudulent concealment to toll limitations on a claim, particularly in suits by mineral owners against their lessees. In Exxon v. Emerald in 2009, the Supreme Court reversed an $18 million judgment against Exxon on the basis that the mineral owners’ claims were barred by limitations — despite an express finding by the jury that the plaintiffs had filed their claim within four years after they discovered or should have discovered Exxon’s fraudulent conduct. In 2011, the Supreme Court in BP v. Marshall overruled a jury verdict in favor of royalty owners, holding that their claim was barred by limitations as a matter of law even though the jury had found that the lessee had fraudulently concealed the facts and that the plaintiffs had no reason to discover the true facts until less than two years prior to filing suit.

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There’s lots of buzz about a recent verdict in a case filed by a landowner in Dallas County alleging injuries from air emissions from drilling and production of Barnett Shale wells in Wise County. The case is Lisa Parr v. Aruba Petroleum, Cause No. 11-01650-E, in the County Court at Law No. 5 of Dallas County. The jury returned a verdict for personal injury and property damages of $2.9 million. According to the petition (Parr – 11th Amended Petition.pdf), Aruba had 22 wells within two miles of the Parrs’ 40 acres, including one within 800 feet.

CNN quotes the plaintiff, Lisa Parr, as saying that says she’s not opposed to the work oil companies do. She simply wants them to do their business responsibly.

“We are not anti-fracking or anti-drilling. My goodness, we live in Texas. Keep it in the pipes, and if you have a leak or spill, report it and be respectful to your neighbors. If you are going to put this stuff in close proximity to homes, be respectful and careful.”

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Emissions of methane from oil and gas exploration, production and transportation facilities have become a big topic in the news recently. The E&P industry touts natural gas as a more environmentally friendly fuel than coal for electric generation, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and there is much debate over the amount of fugitive emissions from wells, pipelines, processing facilities and other industries handling the fuel.

  • The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has endorsed natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to reduce greenhouse gases.
  • The EPA has issued estimates of methane fugitive emissions that have been criticized as low by environmental groups.
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The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has imposed rules on exploration companies requiring seismic monitoring around new well sites near fault lines and quake epicenters in the Utica Shale.  According to the Columbus Dispatch, the rules require monitors at new drill sites located within 3 miles of known fault lines or areas that have experienced an earthquake greater than magnitude 2.0. Monitors cost about $20,000 each, and as many as five are needed at each well. “ODNR officials said if monitors at drilling sites detect even a magnitude 1.0 quake, fracking will immediately stop and an investigation will start. If fracking is blamed, a moratorium would be instituted 3 miles around the epicenter,” according to the article. Earlier earthquake activity near Youngstown, Ohio was attributed to an injection well, which was shut down by Ohio DNR.

Earthquakes in Oklahoma and North Texas in the Barnett Shale, and more recently in the Eagle Ford in South Texas, have been linked to injection wells, but not to hydraulic fracturing. The Texas Railroad Commission has hired a seismologist to study the matter but has not imposed any new regulations on injection wells.

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I ran across this article from the Miami Herald: “Colorado’s new drilling rules seen as making an impact in Texas.” Colorado recently adopted tough air emissions rules applicable to the oil and gas exploration, production and transportation industries, intended to reduce emissions of methane. Those rules were adopted in collaboration with oil companies active in Colorado, and were supported by Anadarko, DCP Midstream, EnCana, and Noble Energy.  According to the article, several companies have approached the Environmental Defense Fund expressing interest in getting Colorado’s rules adopted in Texas. Jim Marston, VP at EDF, said that “The companies are often ahead of the Texas state government” on environmental issues.

Texas regulators often tout Texas as the nation’s leader in oil and gas regulation. Recently, the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas in Texas, has been having to play catch-up. It only recently hired a seismologist to study seismic activity caused by wastewater injection and has not yet agreed that injection is a cause or earthquakes near injection wells. Last year, the RRC adopted tougher casing regulations in response to concerns about possible groundwater contamination from drilling and completion operations. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency that regulates air emissions, has increased its monitoring of air emissions from oil and gas operations, particularly in the Barnett Shale, in response to complaints and concerns raised in and around Fort Worth.

Colorado’s new rules are an effort to significantly reduce methane emissions from oil and gas facilities by requiring better emissions controls, better detection and faster fixing of leaks. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and capturing fugitive emissions of methane also saves money for the companies and their royalty owners. EDF recently commissioned a study by ICF International to quantify the cost and savings of reducing methane emissions. The study found that industry could cut methane emissions by 40 percent below projected 2018 levels at an average annual cost of less than one cent per mcf of produced natural gas by adopting available emissions-control technologies and better leak-detection practices. The practices would have the additional benefit of reducing emissions of volatile organic compounds and other hazardous air pollutants.

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Last Friday I spoke on a panel at the E.E. Smith Advanced Oil and Gas Institute in Houston, discussing allocation wells. The segment was in the form of a debate, actually more like an oral argument. After an introduction of the topic by Bob Goldsmith, Bryan Lauer with Scott Douglas presented the case for the legality of allocation wells, and I presented the case for their illegality. We discussed the precedential value of Browning Oil v. Luecke and Humble Oil v. West and the challenges to allocation wells in the Klotzman proceeding before the Texas Railroad Commission and in Spartan v. EOG, now pending in district court in Harris County.

I can now report that EOG and the Klotzman family have reached a settlement in the Klotzmans’ challenge of an allocation well permit on their lands. So the Railroad Commission’s authority to issue the Klotzman allocation well permit will not be decided by a District Court in Travis County.

Here is a recent article in the Texas Tech Law Review about allocation wells.

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