With the drop in oil prices has come a wave of litigation over underpayment of royalties. Multiple suits have been filed against Repsol (formerly Talisman) over its royalty payments in the Eagle Ford. Multiple suits against Devon for royalty underpayment have been consolidated into a multi-district docket in San Antonio. A federal court in Fort Worth has certified a class action against Devon for underpayment of royalties in the Barnett Shale. Conoco is settling class actions brought in Oklahoma that also cover class members in Texas. These suits allege underpayments of royalty on oil and gas. The San Antonio multi-district suits also allege breach of lease provisions requiring the lessee to protect the lease against drainage from wells on adjacent properties.
These cases present opportunities for plaintiffs’ attorneys to earn large contingency fees. They also point out the problems faced by land and mineral owners in determining whether their lessee is complying with their oil and gas lease. What should landowners do to monitor lease compliance?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Below are some suggestions.
In a case of first impression, the Texas Supreme Court has held that the same land can be included in two pooled units, and that the lessee must pay royalties on the same well to the royalty owners in both pooled units. Samson Exploration v. T.S. Reed Properties, Inc., 2017 WL 2713047 June 23, 2017).
Samson created two pooled units, the Joyce DuJay No. 1 Gas Unit and the Joyce DuJay A No. 1 Gas Unit. The boundaries of the two units largely overlapped, but the A No. 1 Gas Unit also included a lease from T.S. Reed Properties, not included in the No. 1 Gas Unit. The two units also overlapped as to the designated depths pooled, and one of the wells located on the two units was located on lands included in both units and produced from the overlapping depth. Samson was thus faced with the possibility of paying royalties on production from that well to the royalty owners in both units. It refused to pay royalties to T.S. Reed Properties, contending that the second pooled unit was invalid.
A recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas, reviewing results of state records reporting illegal air releases from oil and gas facilities between 2011 through 2016, finds that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality imposed fines for less than three percent of 24,839 “upset” events, even though more than 500 million pounds of pollutants were released. EIP has also sued the Environmental Protection Administration for EPA’s alleged failure to prevent the TCEQ from issuing air permits that don’t comply with the Clean Air Act. EIP claims the TCEQ issues “unenforceable permits with illegal loopholes that render useless some of the most basic pollution control requirements of federal and state law.”
EIP and TCEQ debated EIP’s report, “Breakdowns in Enforcement,” in an article in the Midland Reporter Telegram. EIP found that the Midland area had 2,000 upset incidents in the study period, releasing 34 million pounds of pollution, more than the Houston area. EIP’s report recommended that TCEQ should determine whether an upset event was preventable before deciding whether to pursue enforcement actions, and should consider repeat violators in determining enforcement actions. TCEQ agreed with both recommendations.
The three largest violators, according to the report, were Hess, ConocoPhillips, and DCP Midstream. Spokesmen for those companies told the Midland Reporter Telegram that they take pollution concerns seriously and were working to reduce emissions.
Once the largest landowner in Texas with 3.5 million acres of land, Texas Pacific Land Trust now owns 888,333 acres of land in West Texas. The Trust is owned by holders of “shares of proprietary interest” traded on the New York Stock Exchange. TPLT’s story is a window into the history of Texas and railroads in the 19th century.
Texas and Pacific Railway was created by federal charter in 1871. Its charter was to build a southern transcontinental railroad between Marshall, Texas and San Diego, California. Railroad companies were given land grants in exchange for building rail line, and the U.S. Congress granted T&P twenty sections of land per mile in California and forty sections per mile through the territory that is now Arizona and New Mexico. The State of Texas (where there were no federal lands) agreed to grant T&P twenty sections per mile for the portion of the line crossing Texas. The panic of 1873 caused financial difficulties, and by 1876 only 444 miles had been built. In 1879, Jay Gould bought the company and began laying track west. Gould merged T&P with Southern Pacific Railway, and by 1881 it had built a total of 972 miles of track, entitling it to 12.4 million acres of land. But because it had not built all of the line within the time required by its charter, T&P was awarded only 5,173,120 acres, later reduced to 4,917,074 acres – 3.5 million of that in Texas.
In 1888, the T&P went through bankruptcy and receivership, and the bondholders who financed the railroad were awarded the land in Texas that had been granted to T&P. The bondholders created a trust, Texas Pacific Land Trust, to liquidate those lands for the benefit of the bondholders, receiving 3.5 million acres of land. The certificates of trust issued to the bondholders were later listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The mineral estate under the land was spun off into a separate entity and later sold to Texaco, now Chevron. TPLT owns a royalty interest in almost 500,000 acres of its land.
Denbury Green Pipeline and Texas Rice Land Partners have now fought for ten years over Denbury’s right to condemn an easement across Texas Rice’s land for a CO2 pipeline. The fight is once again, for the third time, back before the Texas Supreme Court.
The fight began in 2007, when Texas Rice challenged Denbury’s right to condemn an easement for its pipeline. That case went to the Supreme Court, which issued a controversial decision holding that Denbury had not proven its right to condemn the easement. Texas Rice Land Partners, Ltd. v. Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas, LLC, 363 S.W.3d 192 (Tex. 2012). The case went back to the trial court and through the Beaumont Court of Appeals, and in January of this year, the Supreme Court issued its second opinion, Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas, LLC v. Texas Rice Land Partners, Ltd., 510 S.W.3d 909 (Tex. 2017), this time ruling that Denbury had proven its right to condemn as a matter of law. See my discussion of these cases here. The case was remanded for trial on the amount of compensation to be awarded for the easement.
The most recent dispute began when Denbury sought access to its pipeline for inspection and Texas Rice refused. Texas Rice argued that Denbury had no right of access because it had been enjoined from taking the compensation funds deposited by Denbury into the court registry eight years earlier. Denbury then asked the trial court to allow it access to the pipeline, but the trial court sided with Texas Rice, agreeing that it had not complied with the requirements of condemnation statutes because Texas Rice was enjoined from withdrawing the condemnation award. Denbury then sought mandamus relief in the Beaumont Court of Appeals, which ruled that it did not have jurisdiction. Now Denbury has sought mandamus relief in the Texas Supreme Court, Case No. 17-0556.
The Texas Supreme Court has refused to allow DISH, a small town in Denton County north of Fort Worth, and several of its residents, to proceed with its suit against four companies who operate gas compressor stations near the town. The plaintiffs alleged that they were harmed by the noise, odors, light and chemicals from the compressors. The Court held that their claims were barred by limitations, reversing an opinion by the Amarillo Court of Appeals that would have allowed the case to proceed.
DISH caused quite a stir beginning in 2010, out of proportion to its size (it had a population of 201 in the 2010 census). Originally named Clark, the town changed its name to DISH as part of a deal with Dish Network in which all residents received free basic television service for ten years. Continue reading →
The Texas legislative session recently ended without any major reforms of the Texas Railroad Commission. Bills to reform the Commission failed in the previous two legislative sessions, after Sunset Commission reports recommending significant changes in the structure of the RRC. This session, the Legislature had no heart for tackling those reforms and instead gave the RRC renewed life through September 1, 2029.
The bill authorizing continuance of the RRC, HB 1818, includes a provision requiring the RRC to track its oil and gas monitoring and enforcement activities and publish an annual report on its website. But a bill (HB 247 by Anchia) to require the RRC to publish on its website details of violations and enforcement actions by operators, searchable by county, operator and well, failed to pass. As did a bill to change the RRC’s name to the Texas Energy Commission. Another bill by Anchia, HB 464, restricting the time periods when Commissioners could accept political contributions and prohibiting contributions by companies with contested cases before the RRC, also died. HB 567, which would have increased penalties for operator violations of RRC rules and required the RRC to allow public input on its penalty guidelines, failed to get out of committee.
The Legislature’s budget bill includes an appropriation of $38.2 million from the state’s rainy day fund for plugging of orphaned oil and gas wells. The RRC website lists more than 5800 orphaned wells in Texas – wells for which no operator can be found who can be made responsible for plugging the well.
The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) has issued a report on the environmental and community impacts of shale development in Texas. The report can be viewed on the TAMEST website. Its authors reviewed available literature on on six areas of impacts: seismicity, land, water, air, transportation, and economic and social impacts. Its authors make recommendations on further needed research and studies.
TAMEST members are the Texas-based members of the National Academies of Medicine, Engineering and Sciences, and the state’s nine Nobel Laureates. It hosts an annual conference and educational programs on key issues, and offers awards to aspiring researchers. Two years ago TAMEST organized a task force to review available research on the impacts of shale development in Texas.
Its shale report task force includes members of TAMEST and members from the oil and gas industry. The report was funded by the Cynthia and George Mitchel Foundation (“committed to promoting energy efficiency and minimizing the air and water impacts from energy production”). Each chapter of the report was authored by three of the task force members, with one of the TAMEST members serving as the lead author.
In March, the Texas Supreme Court decided James H. Davis, Individually and d/b/a JD Minerals, and JDMI, LLC v. Mark Mueller, No. 16-0155. (Davis v. Mueller) The Court construed a mineral deed to JD Minerals covering interests in Harrison County. The deed described particular interests owned by the grantor and then added the following:
The “Lands” subject to this deed also include all strips, gores, roadways, water bottoms and other lands adjacent to or contiguous with the lands specifically described above and owned or claimed by Grantors. If the description above proves incorrect in any respect or does not include these adjacent or contiguous lands, Grantor shall, without additional consideration, execute, acknowledge, and deliver to Grant[ee], its successors and assigns, such instruments as are useful or necessary to correct the description and evidence such correction in the appropriate public records. Grantor hereby conveys to Grantee all of the mineral, royalty, and overriding royalty interest owned by Grantor in Harrison County, whether or not same is herein above correctly described.
The particular tract descriptions were vague and not sufficient to satisfy the statute of frauds. So the issue was whether the deed conveyed anything. JD Minerals contended that the last sentence quoted above was sufficient to convey all interests owned by Grantor in Harrison County, even if all other descriptions in the deed were not sufficient under the Statute of Frauds. The Supreme Court agreed with JD Minerals. It agreed that the particular descriptions were too vague to convey anything, but it followed the Texas rule that a “blanket” conveyance of all of the grantor’s property a named county (or indeed in the State of Texas) is sufficient to convey all property owned by the grantor in the county. The fact that this sentence was in the same paragraph as the Mother Hubbard clause of the deed did not make it ambiguous.