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September 3, 2014

Potts v. Chesapeake

Last month I wrote about two cases recently decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in which Chesapeake defeated royalty owners' efforts to prevent it from reducing their royalties by deducting post-production costs. One of those cases is Potts v. Chesapeake. The plaintiffs in that case have asked the Court of Appeals to reconsider its appeal "en banc," meaning that it has asked the other judges on the court to grant its petition for rehearing and reconsider the decision of the three-judge panel who decided the case. Plaintiffs' Petition for Rehearing may be viewed here:  Potts Petition for Rehearing En Banc.pdf

Yesterday, our firm filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Potts case, on behalf of the Texas Land and Mineral Owners Association and the National Association of Royalty Owners - Texas, asking the Court to grant the plaintiff's motion for rehearing and either consider the case en banc or refer the question to the Texas Supreme Court for its consideration. A copy of our brief may be viewed here:  Potts v. CHK Amicus Brief.pdf

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, suit has been filed against Chesapeake claiming that its conduct in selling gas to its affiliate company at prices well below market, and then selling its affiliate company for a substantial profit, constituted fraud on its royalty owners in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO.  That petition can be viewed here:  Suessenbach v. Chesapeake.pdf

August 7, 2014

Two Wins for Chesapeake in 5th Circuit

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans has ruled for Chesapeake in two cases, holding that it can deduct post-production costs from gas royalties. Potts v. Chesapeake Exploration, No. 13-10601, and Warren v. Chesapeake Exploration, No. 13-10619. Both cases were decided by the same three judges, and both opinions were written by Judge Priscilla R. Owen. In both cases, Judge Owen relied on the Texas Supreme Court case of Heritage Resources v. NationsBank, 939 S.W.2d 118 (Tex. 1996). Judge Owen was on the Texas Supreme Court when Heritage v. NationsBank was decided, and she wrote an opinion in that case. Judge Owen cites her own opinion in Heritage as the principal precedent for her opinions in Potts and Warren.

The Potts and Warren cases were tried in federal district court. Because Chesapeake's home office is in Oklahoma, it has the right to remove suits filed against it in Texas to federal court. Federal courts have "diversity" jurisdiction over cases between citizens of different states. In diversity cases, federal courts must follow the law of the states. No federal law is involved. So, in deciding Potts and Warren, the 5th Circuit judges were attempting to predict what a Texas court would do, following prior precedent from Texas courts -- in this case, Heritage v. NationsBank.

Heritage v. NationsBank is a seminal case in oil and gas law, some would say infamous. The question in Heritage was whether Heritage, the lessee, could deduct transportation costs for gas from royalties owed to NationsBank. NationsBank's lease provided that royalties on gas would be "the market value at the well of 1/5 of the gas so sold or used, ... provided, however, that there shall be no deductions from the value of the Lessor's royalty by reason of any required processing, cost of dehydration, compression, transportation or other matter to market such gas." The Texas Supreme Court held that Heritage could deduct transportation costs from NationsBank's royalty. In her concurring opinion, Justice Owen said that the no-deductions proviso on NationsBank's lease was "circular" and "meaningless":

There is little doubt that at least some of the parties to these agreements subjectively intended the phrase at issue to have meaning. However, the use of the words "deductions from the value of Lessor's royalty" is circular in light of this and other courts' interpretation of "market value at the well." The concept of "deductions" of marketing costs from the value of the gas is meaningless when gas is valued at the well.

There were three opinions from the court in Heritage: a majority opinion written by Justice Baker, joined by Chief Justice Phillips, and Justices Cornyn, Enoch and Spector; a concurring opinion by Justice Priscilla Own, joined by Justice Hecht; and a dissenting opinion by Justice Gonzalez, joined by Justice Gregg Abbott.  (Cornyn went on to be Texas' U.S. Senator; Justice Abbott subsequently became Texas Attorney General and is now running for Texas Governor; Justice Owen was nominated by President Bush to fill the vacancy on the 5th Circuit left by Judge Will Garwood's retirement in 2001, but she was not confirmed by the Senate until 2005.)

Several amicus briefs were filed in Heritage asking the court to reconsider its decision, but the court refused. Justice Gonzalez, however, wrote an opinion dissenting on motion for rehearing, in which Justices Cornyn, Spector and Abbott joined. It is published at 960 S.W.2d 619. In that opinion, Justice Gonzalez said that the court was evenly divided, 4 to 4, on whether to grant the motion for rehearing. Justice Enoch had recused himself from the case, for reasons not stated, and Justices Cornyn and Spector had changed their minds, now siding with Justice Gonzalez's dissent. And Justice Phillips had decided to concur in Justice Owen's opinion rather than join Justice Baker's original majority opinion. Because a vote of 5 justices is required to grant rehearing, the motion failed. But, said Justice Gonzalez, there was no longer any majority opinion. "Because we are without majority agreement on the reasons supporting the judgment," he said, "the judgment itself has very limited precedential value and controls only this case." And, he predicted, "the Court's error in this case will have far-reaching effects on the oil and gas industry in Texas, as millions of dollars will now be placed in dispute."  His prediction has proven true.

Of the two cases decided by the 5th Circuit, Potts is the most interesting. The oil and gas lease from Potts to Chesapeake provided that royalties on gas would be "the market value at the point of sale of 1/4 of the gas sold or used." It also provided:

Notwithstanding anything to the contrary herein contained, all royalty paid to Lessor shall be free of all costs and expenses related to the exploration, production and marketing of oil and gas production from the lease including, but not limited to, costs of compression, dehydration, treatment and transportation."

Another lease provision said:

Payments of royalties ... shall be based on sales of leased substances to unrelated third parties at prices arrived at through arms length negotiations. Royalties to Lessor on leased substances not sold in an arms length transaction shall be determined based on prevailing values at the time in the area.

As I have written before, Chesapeake has created a complex relationship among its affiliate companies. One affiliate, Chesapeake Operating, operates the lease for Chesapeake. Another affiliate, Chesapeake Energy Marketing (CEMI), buys the gas from Chesapeake Operating at the wellhead. CEMI gathers the gas from Chesapeake's wells and resells it to purchasers at remote points of sale. The price that CEMI pays Chesapeake for the gas is based on the weighted average price of all gas sold at those remote points of sale, less the post-production costs CEMI incurs between the wellhead and the points of sale. Royalties were paid to Potts based on that net price, so that Potts, as royalty owner, was bearing his share of those post-production costs.

Justice Owen's opinion holds that Chesapeake is entitled to pay Potts royalties net of post-production costs, relying on her own opinion in Heritage v. NationsBank. Potts argued that Heritage was distinguishable, and he pointed to the following sentence from Justice Owen's opinion in Heritage:

There are any number of ways the parties could have provided that the lessee was to bear all costs of marketing the gas. If they had intended that the royalty owners would receive royalty based on the market value at the point of delivery or sale, they could have said so.

Potts' lease provides, as Justice Owen had suggested, that his royalty shall be based on the "market value at the point of sale." But, said Judge Owen, in this case Chesapeake's sale (to its affiliate CEMI) is at the well, so the "point of sale" is on the lease, and the market value at that point is the price received by Chesapeake from its affiliate, net of post-production costs. "Chesapeake has sold the gas at the wellhead. That is the point of sale at which market value must be calculated under the terms of the lessors' lease."

I have seen many lease clauses attempting to prohibit deduction of post-production costs. Some of those clauses include language such as this: "This provision is intended to avoid the result in Heritage v. NationsBank." I've not seen a case construing such a clause. Despite Justice Gonzalez's insistence that Heritage has very limited precedential value, companies have made the most of it, and lessors continue to try to avoid it.

March 11, 2014

Chesapeake v. Hyder - Royalty Owner Wins Gas Royalty Dispute

Last week, the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio issued its opinion in Chesapeake v. Hyder.pdf, on gas royalties owed to the Hyder family for production in Johnson and Tarrant Counties, in the Barnett Shale. The court upheld a judgment against Chesapeake for more than a million dollars, including $250,000 in attorneys' fees. The result is not surprising considering the language in the lease, but the case is interesting because it reveals Chesapeake's structure for marketing of gas in the Barnett Shale, obviously designed to reduce its gas royalty obligations.

The principal issue on appeal was whether Chesapeake could reduce the Hyders' royalty by the amount of transportation costs paid by Chesapeake to unrelated pipeline companies. The trial court and court of appeals held that it could not. As I have written before (here, here and here), deductibility of post-production costs is a continuing issue for gas royalty payments in Texas. Prior Supreme Court cases have held that such costs are deductible under most standard gas royalty clauses.

The Hyders' royalty clause was not a standard lessee-form lease. It provided:

Lessee covenants and agrees to pay Lessor the following royalty: ... (b) for natural gas, including casinghead gas and other gaseous substances produced from the Leased Premises and sold or used on or off the Leased Premises, twenty-five percent (25%) of the price actually received by Lessee for such gas. Lessee shall not sell hydrocarbons to entities owned in whole or in part by Lessee or to entities affiliated with Lessee in any way, without the express written consent of Lessors. The royalty reserved herein by Lessors shall be free and clear of all production and post-production costs and expenses, including but not limited to, production, gathering, separating, storing, dehydrating, compressing, transporting, processing, treating, marketing, delivering, or any other costs and expenses incurred between the wellhead and Lessee's point of delivery or sale of such share to a third party. ... In no event shall the volume of gas used to calculate Lessors' royalty be reduced for gas used by Lessee as fuel for lease operations or for compression or dehydration of gas. ... Lessors and Lessee agree that the holding in the case of Heritage Resources, Inc. v. Nationsbank, 939 S.W.2d 118 (Tex. 1996) shall have no application to the terms and provision of this Lease.

Chesapeake has different affiliated companies, each of which has a different role in the process of production, gathering, marketing and sale of its gas. The owner of the lease is Chesapeake Exploration, LLC. Chesapeake Operating, Inc., drills and operates the wells and pays the royalty. Chesapeake Energy Marketing, Inc., buys the gas from Chesapeake Operating (as agent for Chesapeake Exploration). Chesapeake Midstream Partners, LP gathers the gas from the leases and delivers it to pipelines owned and operated by unrelated parties. Those pipelines in turn deliver the gas to purchasers, who pay Chesapeake Energy Marketing, Inc. Confused yet? It gets better.

Chesapeake's royalties are based on a weighted-average sales price for all gas that passes through the gathering system and sold to third parties: total proceeds received divided by total gas sold equals the weighted average sales price, or "WASP". The contract between Chesapeake Operating and Chesapeake Energy Marketing provides that the price paid to Chesapeake Operating is the price received by Marketing for the sale of the gas to third parties, less all costs incurred by Marketing to get the gas to the ultimate purchaser - both the gathering costs charged by Chesapeake Midstream Partners and the pipeline fees charged to transport the gas to the ultimate buyer - plus a "marketing fee" of 3% paid to Marketing. For most royalty owners, Chesapeake pays royalty on this net price, after deducting all post-production costs, including the gathering fees charged by Midstream Partners and the marketing fee charged by Marketing.

But the Hyders' lease prohibited Chesapeake from selling gas to an affiliate without the Hyders' consent, which it never obtained. So Chesapeake agreed that its royalty should be based on its weighted average sales price, without deduction of fees charged by Marketing or Midstream Partners. But Chesapeake claimed that it could deduct the pipeline transportation costs charged by unaffiliated pipelines to transport the gas to the ultimate buyer. This issue became the principal dispute in the case. The trial court and court of appeals agreed that such costs could not be deducted. "Free and clear of all costs" means just what it says, said the courts.

Another interesting issue in the case was whether Chesapeake must pay royalty on gas "lost and unaccounted for." The facts showed that not all gas produced from the Hyder lease was sold:

- some gas was used by Chesapeake as "gas lift" gas, -- that is, reinjected down the wellbore to assist in production from the well.

- some gas was used as fuel for compression and dehydration of gas produced from the lease - "lease-use gas."

- some gas was lost and unaccounted for between the wellhead and the point of delivery to the ultimate purchaser. This gas is lost through leaks in the gathering and transportation system.

Chesapeake agreed that the lease required it to pay royalty on all gas "produced and sold or used ...." It agreed that gas used as fuel for compression and dehydration was gas "used". But Chesapeake argued that it did not have to pay royalty on gas lost and unaccounted for. That gas was neither sold nor used. On this point, the trial court and court of appeals agreed with Chesapeake. "Gas lost or unaccounted for is neither sold nor used." (The parties agreed that no royalty was owed on gas-lift gas.)

The Hyder lease also had a special provision allowing the lessee to locate wells on the leased premises drilled horizontally onto adjacent lands. For such well locations, the lessee agreed to pay to the Hyders a "cost-free" overriding royalty. Chesapeake claimed that it could deduct post-production costs in calculating the Hyders' overriding royalty. The trial court and the court of appeals disagreed; "cost-free" means free of all costs, including post-production costs.

One of the remarkable things about this case is that Chesapeake argued in the trial and on appeal that it should not have to pay royalty on gas lost and unaccounted for because the only "price received" by Chesapeake was the price paid for the sale of the gas to non-affiliated third parties. In fact, Chesapeake obtained a finding from the trial court to that effect. Chesapeake's attorneys showed that the first "buyer" of the gas, Chesapeake Energy Marketing, never received any money from the sale of the gas and never paid any money to Chesapeake Operating, the seller, or Chesapeake Exploration, the owner, even though the gas sales contract for the "first sale" of the gas was between Chesapeake Operating and Chesapeake Energy Marketing. It appears to me that Chesapeake was in effect admitting that its marketing arrangement with its affiliate Chesapeake Marketing was a sham.

Another interesting fact revealed in the Hyders' briefs is that, between 2005 and 2011, Chesapeake changed the way it calculated the Hyders' royalty four times. Initially, it calculated the Hyders' royalty based on the total wellhead volume, using the WASP. Then it began paying only on the volumes sold to unrelated third parties, less third-party transportation costs. Then it stopped deducting transportation costs and paid based on the well-head volume times the WASP. Then it began paying on the volumes sold to third parties, less third-party transportation charges.

It is my experience that Chesapeake does not show any post-production-cost deductions on its check details and refuses to provide that information to royalty owners unless the royalty owner is granted the right to audit its royalties in his/her oil and gas lease--and even then it sometimes refuses. Trying to determine whether a royalty owner is being unlawfully charged post-production costs is very difficult. Trying to collect those charges, even with very good lease language like the Hyders', is expensive and time-consuming, as the Hyders have learned.

November 25, 2013

Chesapeake and Post-Production Costs

Lawsuits against Chesapeake Exploration for wrongfully deducting post-production costs from its gas royalty payments are hitting a boiling-point. Suits are being pursued against the company in every jurisdiction where it operates, including Texas, Arkansas, Lousiana, Kansas, Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. Chesapeake has recently been much more aggressive in deducting post-production costs. In the Barnett Shale in North Texas, its post-production cost deductions have been as much as $.70 to $1.00 per mcf, and with such low gas prices, some royalty owners' payments have been halved by such deductions. Chesapeake's royalty payments in North Texas have reportedly been on a net price of as little as eleven cents per mcf, and as little as 11% of the price other producers have based their royalty payments on. A recent Bloomberg article summarizes Chesapeake's royalty payment practices.

Chesapeake has settled some claims, including large royalty owner claims in Pennsylvania. Chesapeake's marketing practices in Pennsylvania mirror those it uses in the Barnett Shale.  Last year, Chesapeake settled a claim brought by the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport for underpayment of royalties for $5 million. The Bass family in Fort Worth recently sued the company for wrongfully deducting post-production costs.

Chesapeake's tactics for how it calculates its royalties cannot be understood without knowing something about how Texas courts have addressed deductibility of post-production costs. I have previously written three posts on this topic that can be seen here, here and here.

Oil company oil and gas lease forms historically have provided that royalties on natural gas are based on "market value at the well" or the "net amount realized at the well." Texas courts have construed such leases to allow the producer to deduct from gas sale proceeds the costs of gathering, transporting, treating and processing gas after it has been produced but prior to sale. In response, mineral owners in Texas began adding "no-deduction" clauses to their leases, prohibiting deduction of such costs for purposes of calculating their royalty.  One such clause from a famous Texas Supreme Court case, Heritage Resources v. Nationsbank, 939 S.W.2d 118 (Tex. 1996), said: "provided, however, that there shall be no deductions from the value of the Lessor's royalty by reason of any required processing, cost of dehydration, compression, transportation or other matter to market such gas."  To most oil and gas attorneys' suprise, the Supreme Court in Heritage v. Nationsbank held that, despite this no-deduction clause, Heritage Resources was entitled to deduct transportation costs from Nationsbank's royalty. The court reasoned that, because the lease provided that royalty would be based on the "market value at the well" of the gas, no deductions were being made from that value in calcluating Nationsbank's royalty. The Supreme Court deemed the no-deduction language to be "surplusage."

Since Heritage v. Nationsbank, landowners have begun to include language in their leases expressly stating that their lease should not be construed like the lease in Heritage. But despite such efforts, Chesapeake has relied on the Heritage case to continue deducting post-production costs from its royalty payments.

Two Texas cases challenging Chesapeake's right to deduct post-production costs are now on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, both appealed from the U.S. District Court in Dallas:  Potts v. Chesapeake, Case No. 13-1061, appealed from the U.S. District Court in Dallas; and Warren v. Chesapeake, District Court No. 3:12-cv-03581-M. In both cases, Chesapeake won in the trial court and the royalty owners are appealing.

The cases reveal that, in the Barnett Shale, Chesapeake sells its gas to its wholly-owned subsidiary, Chesapeake Energy Marketing Inc. (CEMI). The sales contract provides that CEMI takes custody of the gas at the wellhead.  CEMI then gathers the gas and sells it to various purchasers at various prices. The Chesapeake-CEMI contract provides that the price paid to Chesapeake for the gas will be the weighted-average sales price of all gas sold by CEMI from Chesapeake wells in the area, less post-production costs incurred by CEMI. By structuring its sales through its affiliate and providing for the contract point of delivery to be at the wellhead, Chesapeake seeks to take advantage of its leases that provide for royalties based on "market value at the well," as construed by Heritage v. Nationsbank.

The oil and gas lease construed in Warren v. Chesapeake appears to fall squarely within the Heritage holding: it provides for royalty based on "the amount realized by Lessee, computed at the mouth of the well." A provision added by the landowner states:

Notwithstanding anything to the contrary herein contained, all royalty paid to Lessor shall be free of all costs and expenses related to the exploration, production and marketing of oil and gas production from the lease including, but not limited to, costs of compression, dehydration, treatment and transportation. Lessor will, however, bear a proportionate part of all those expenses imposed upon Lessee by its gas sale contract to the extent incurred subsequent to those that are obligations of Lessee.

The lease construed in Potts v. Chesapeake is much more interesting, and presents a closer case. Its language is contained in two paragraphs. The first provides that royalty shall be based on the "market value at the point of sale," and that "all royalty paid to [Lessors] shall be free of all costs and expenses related to the exploration, production and marketing of oil and gas produced from the lease including, but not limited to, costs of compression, dehydration, treatment and transportation." A separate paragraph provides that "Payments of royalties to Lessor shall be made monthly and shall be based on sales of leased substances to unrelated third parties at prices arrived at through arms length negotiations."

The plaintiff in Potts argues that his lease is not controlled by Heritage v. Nationsbank; his royalties are to be based on the price "at the point of sale," not "at the well"; and his royalties must be based on the sale price to unrelated parties arrived at in arms-length negotiations, not the price in the Chesapeake contract with its affiliate CEMI.

Chesapeake argues that it has complied with both lease provisions. First, since it sells its gas at the well, the "market value at the point of sale" is the same as the "market value at the well," so it is in compliance with the first lease provision in paying based on the price it receives from CEMI.  Second, because the price CEMI pays Chesapeake for the gas is based on the weighted-average price for CEMI's sales of gas to unrelated parties in arms-length transactions, it is complying with the second lease provision.

It seems clear that the landowner in Potts was attempting to draft his lease to prevent deduction of post-production costs and to require that his royalties be based on the price received in the first arms-length sale of his gas.  Whether he accomplished that intent is a matter for the Fifth Circuit Court to decide.


October 15, 2010

Chesapeake Sued in Oklahoma For Underpayment of Royalties in Barnett Shale Wells

A royalty owner in the Barnett Shale has sued Chesapeake in Oklahoma federal court for failure to properly pay royalties. The suit, Robyn Coffey vs. Chesapeake Exploration, L.L.C. and Chesapeake Operating, Inc., Civil Action No. CIV-10-1054-C, was filed on September 27 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, in Oklahoma City. A copy of the complaint can be viewed here: Coffey v Chesapeake.pdf  The plaintiff seeks to bring the case on behalf of all royalty owners in the Barnett Shale formation, as a class action.

The plaintiff alleges that Chesapeake "employs a scheme" to reduce royalty payments by selling the gas to its wholly owned subsidiaries at a price "substantially less than either the market value at well or the amount actually received by Chesapeake Operating."

The royalty clause in the plaintiff''s oil and gas lease is unusual. It provides for payment of royalties based on the "market value at the point of sale," but not less than "the actual amount realized by the Lessee." The clause says that all royalty paid to the lessor "shall be free of all costs and expenses related to the exploration, production and marketing of oil and gas production from the lease including, but not limited to, costs of compression, dehydration, treatment and transportation." Most gas royalty clauses provide that gas royalties will be based on "the amount realized by Lessee, computed at the mouth of the well," or similar language.

The plaintiff's lease does not expressly address sales by a lessee to a company which is affiliated with the lessee. The plaintiff in this case will therefore have to prove in effect that the sale to Chesapeake's affiliate is a sham designed to cheat its royalty owners. It is possible to draft a royalty clause that would deal with sales to affiliates -- in effect providing that royalties shall be based on the proceeds received by the lessee or any affiliate of the lessee -- in other words, based on the price received in the first arms-length sale to an unrelated third party.

The case is obviously drafted to be a class action. The amount of the individual plaintiff's claim is not stated in the complaint, but the plaintiff owns royalties on only about 3 acres. If the plaintiff is able to get the case certified as a class action on behalf of all Chesapeake royalty owners in the Barnett Shale, millions of dollars of royalty will be at issue in the case.  It is evident that the lawyers elected to file in Oklahoma because the Texas Supreme Court has been very hostile to royalty owner class actions in Texas. In light of the unusual language in this royalty owner's lease, it will be interesting to see if the federal court in Oklahoma will be willing to certify this case as a class action.

February 23, 2009

Post-Production Costs in Texas-Part III: Yturria v. Kerr-McGee

Last week, in Post-Production Costs in Texas-Part II, I discussed the Texas Supreme Court's decision in Heritage Resources v. NationsBank regarding the deductibility of post-production costs from lessor's royalties under an oil and gas lease. Justice Priscilla Owen (now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit) filed a concurring opinion in Heritage in which she said that "it is important to note that we are construing specific language in specific oil and gas leases. Parties to a lease may allocate costs, including post-production or marketing costs, as they choose." Justice Owen's conclusion was put to the test in Yturria v. Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas Onshore, LLC, decided by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on September 8, 2008.

My firm represented the royalty owners in Yturria v. Kerr McGee, and I was the author of two of the oil and gas leases construed in that case. As the court points out, these were not "standard" oil and gas leases. They contained detailed provisions as to how royalties were to be calculated and paid. The language was crafted as part of the settlement of earlier litigation with Kerr McGee over royalty payments, and at the time the language was agreed to there were existing wells on the leases that produced substantial quantities of gas. The Kerr-McGee gas was processed before sale under a processing agreement between Kerr-McGee and the processor, Enterprise.; The processing agreement required that Enterprise pay Kerr McGee for 80% of the natural gas liquids extracted from the gas, based on posted prices, less a "T & F Fee" for the costs of transportation and fractionation of the liquids. The issue in the case was whether the royalty owners should bear their royalty share of the T & F Fees charged by Enterprise. The trial court and the court of appeals both ruled in favor of the royalty owners, holding that, under the particular language of the leases, the T & Fees could not be deducted from the lessors' royalty.

 The leases provided that Kerr-McGee would pay a royalty on natural gas liquids (called "plant products" in the leases) equal to "1/4th of 75% of all plant products, or revenue derived therefrom, attributable to gas produced by Lessee from the leased premises (whether or not Lessee's processing agreement entitles it to a greater or lesser percentage)." The leases also provided that "Lessor's royalty shall never bear, either directly or indirectly, any part of the costs or expenses of production, gathering, dehydration, compression, transportation (except transportation by truck), manufacture, processing, treatment or marketing of the oil or gas from the leased premises." The court of appeals agreed with the royalty owners that the "revenue derived" from plant products was the gross revenue based on the price set forth in the Enterprise-Kerr-McGee processing agreement, before deduction of the T & F Fees.

This case illustrates that accounting for gas royalties can be a complex matter. The royalty owners discovered the T & F Fee deduction only after an audit of Kerr-McGee's records and had to engage in four years of litigation to enforce the provisions in their leases.

February 16, 2009

Post-Production Costs in Texas - Part II

Last week I introduced the term "post-production costs" and attempted to explain what those costs are and how oil companies account for such costs in calculating royalties.  I said that Texas courts have construed the standard gas royalty clause to allow oil companies to deduct post-production costs from royalties. The Texas Supreme Court had occasion in 1996, in Heritage Resources, Inc. v. NationsBank, to address the deductibility of post-production costs.  NationsBank (now Bank of America) was named trustee of trusts created under the will of David Tramell. NationsBank signed oil and gas leases covering lands owned by those trusts, and Heritage Resources drilled gas wells on the leases. Heritage deducted transportation costs from the royalties it paid to the trusts, and NationsBank sued to recover those deductions, based on the following language in its leases:

The royalties to be paid Lessor are ...

;on gas, .. the market value at the well of 1/5 of the gas so sold or used, ... provided, however, that there shall be no deductions from the value of the Lessor's royalty by reason of any required processing, cost of dehydration, compression, transportation or other matter to market such gas.

The court, with two justices dissenting, held that Heritage had properly deducted transportation costs in calculating the royalties.  The court's reasoning went something like this: (1) The royalties are to be calculated based on the "market value at the well." (2) The proper method of calculating royalties "at the well" is to deduct transportation costs from the gross proceeds of sale of the gas at the point of sale. (3) The "value of Lessor's royalty" is therefore the gross proceeds of sale less transportation costs.  (4) Heritage is not deducting transportation costs from the "value of Lessor's royalty," and so is not violating the lease. If this sounds a little bit circular to you, you aren't alone. The court concluded:

We recognize that our construction of the royalty clauses in ... the ... leases arguably renders the post-productions clause [the no-deductions clause] unnecessary where gas sales occur off the lease. However, the commonly accepted meaning of the "royalty" and "market value at the well" terms renders the post-production clause in each surplusage as a matter of law.

"Surplusage" is a fancy term for "meaningless." I agree with the dissenting opinion, which said of the no-deductions clause in the leases:

What could be more clear? This provision expresses the parties' intent in plain English, and I am puzzled by the Court's decision to ignore the unequivocal intent of sophisticated parties who negotiated contractual terms at arm's length.

On rehearing, four justices voted to rehear the case.  One justice recused himself, so the court was deadlocked 4 to 4 on whether the case was correctly decided. As a result, the motion for rehearing was denied. Although it may be argued that the case has little precedential value, it is in the books, and it is cited regularly by oil companies on this issue. 

What is the lesson in this case for royalty owners? Be careful how you draft a lease clause prohibiting deduction of post-production clauses. Some lawyers go so far as to say in their no-deduction clause that "it is the intent of this provision to prohibit deductions from Lessor's royalty despite the holding in Heritage Resources v. NationsBank." A better practice is to avoid the term "market value at the well" altogether. Change it to "market value at the point of sale." And expressly prohibit any deduction of post-production costs from that value.

February 9, 2009

Deductibility of Post-Production Costs in Texas Oil and Gas Leases

Mineral owners in Texas have learned that their leases should provide for a "cost-free" royalty. By this, they generally understand that the lease should prohibit the lessee from deducting any costs from their royalty. Herein, then, are some ruminations about what lawyers and oil companies refer to as "post-production costs."

The problem of post-production costs generally arises only in relation to gas production. The typical oil and gas lease provides that the royalty on gas shall be a specified fraction of "the market value at the well", or of the "amount realized at the well," or the "net proceeds at the mouth of the well." The phrase "at the well," as interpreted by Texas courts, has a highly specialized meaning.  It means that the lessee, in calculating the royalty, can deduct any costs incurred to make the gas marketable and to get the gas to the point of sale. (I'll bet most mineral owners don't realize that when they sign a lease.)  Such costs are referred to as "post-production costs" because they are incurred after the gas is produced but before it is sold, and they can be quite significant.

Suppose the following facts: ABC Oil Company drills the Jones #1 gas well on the Jones farm.  ABC has a lease from Jones that provides for payment of a 1/4th royalty on the "amount realized at the mouth of the well."  The Jones #1 gas as it comes from the ground contains quantities of water, hydrogen sulfide and other impurities that have to be removed before the gas can be sold to a pipeline.  Also, the gas itself is actually a mixture of several different hydrocarbon gases - methane, ethane, butane and propane.  Although most natural gas is methane -- the same gas you burn in your stove -- some natural gas contains significant quantities of "heavier" gases such as ethane, butane and propane.  If there are enough of those other gases, they must be separated from the methane before the methane can be sold to a pipeline, because the heavier gases tend to condense into a liquid in the pipeline and cause problems with the pipeline's transmission system.  The heavier gases can be sold as separate products. They generally have a higher value per unit volume than methane because they have a higher heating value. That is, they produce more heat per unit volume when they are burned as fuel.

So ABC Oil Company installs separators and treaters on the Jones lease to remove the water and hydrogen sulfide from the gas. The cost of such treatment is $.10 per mcf. ABC also contracts with XYZ Processing Company to "process" the gas to remove the heavier hydrocarbons. Its agreement with XYZ Processing Company provides that XYZ gets to keep 25% of the heavier gases as its fee for processing the gas from the Jones #1 well. ABC also enters into a contract with Big Inch Pipeline Company to transport the methane to Commercial Plastics Company for $.05 per mcf, and ABC enters into a contract to sell the gas to Commercial Plastics Company for $5.00 per mcf. Finally, ABC agrees to sell its 75% of the heavier gases to NGL Purchasing Company for $7.00 per mcf.

In its first month of production, the Jones #1 produces 100,000 mcf of gas.  1,000 mcf of that gas is used as fuel to run the treaters to remove the water and hydrogen sulfide. After the remaining gas is treated and processed, it becomes 90,000 mcf of methane and 9,000 mcf of heavier gases.  ABC gets back the 90,000 mcf of methane, which it sells to Commercial Plastics for $450,000, and it gets back 75% of the 9,000 mcf of heavier gases, which it sells to NGL Purchasing Company for $47,250. ABC Oil Company thus receives $450,000 for the methane and $47,250 for the heavier gases, for a total of $497,250.

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