Articles Posted in Legislation

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Tiffany Dowell Lashmet, blogger at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, alerted me in her blog to a bill passed in the last session of the Texas Legislature, HB 365, that Texas landowners should know about. The bill amends the Texas Farm Animal Liability Act, Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code Chapter 87. The Act offers landowners protection from liability from injuries caused to “participants” resulting from an inherent risk of engaging in a “farm animal activity”.

The bill was passed to address an issue with the Act addressed in a Texas Supreme Court case, Waak v. Rodriguez, 603 S.W.3d 103 (Tex. 2020). The Waaks breed Charolais cattle on their ranch in Fayette County. They hired Raul Zuniga to help with the cattle. They instructed him to move some cattle to a different pasture, including a 2,000-pound bull. They later found Zuniga dead in the pen with the bull, cause of death blunt force and crush injuries. Zuniga’s parents and surviving children sued the Waaks for wrongful death and survival claims, alleging negligence. The trial court dismissed the case on the ground that the Farm Animal Activity Act barred the claims. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Act did not apply. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the Waaks were not entitled to the protection of the Act. The Act limits liability for injury to a “participant in a farm animal activity” that results from “inherent risk” of such activities. The court held that Zuniga was not a “participant in a farm animal activity” as defined in the Act.

HB 365 broadens the definitions of participant and farm animal activity so that they would cover injuries sustained in handling cattle like the activity engaged in by Zuniga. (It also now includes bees as farm animals covered by the Act.)

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The recently completed session of the Texas Legislature several bills were filed addressing flaring from oil and gas wells — none of which passed. The number and variety of bills does, however, indicate the increased level of interest and concern about unwarranted flaring of natural gas.

HB 1377: Revises the Tax Code to eliminate the exemption from severance tax for gas “produced from oil wells with oil and lawfully vented or flared.

SB 1293 and HB 1494: Revises the Tax Code to impose a severance tax of 25% on flared gas.

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HB 3794

This bill, signed by the Governor, fixes a problem with the provisions of the Texas Business and Commerce Code that grant a security interest in oil and gas production and proceeds to secure the payor’s obligation to pay royalty owners. I have written about this problem before. Previous bankruptcy court decisions held that this provision did not protect royalty owners when the payor was a company not organized in Texas.

SB 1259

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Senate Bill 421, reforming how pipelines exercise the power of eminent domain to condemn right-of-way, died at the end of the Texas legislative session after Rep. Tom Craddick sought to make amendments opposed by its author, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst. Kolkhorst said Craddick “seized the legislation” from its house sponsor and severely weakened the bill. The bill would have prevented low first-time offers for easements, improved easement terms and set mandatory meetings with property owners to explain the eminent domain process.

“The language of the House version would have turned back the clock for landowners and greatly harmed them,” Kolkhorst said in a statement Sunday. “I cannot agree to the Craddick proposal, which would do the opposite of what we set to do: help level the playing field for landowners in the taking of their property.”

This is the third legislative session in which Kolkhorst’s efforts to reform eminent domain have failed. Kolkhorst said she isn’t giving up. “This issue will and must remain a top state legislative priority,” she said.

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Senator Dan Patrick and Speaker Joe Strauss have issued their list of interim charges for the next legislative session – issues that committees must study during the interim between sessions. Those interim charges may be found here:

SenateInterimCharges_2017_Round_1_FINAL

House-interim-charges-85th

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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.

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The Sunset Advisory Commission will meet November 10 to vote on its recommendations to the Texas legislature for legislation to continue the Railroad Commission for another 12 years.  Committee members have proposed modifications to several of the staff report, and also add several additional recommendations. The staff recommendations and proposed modifications submitted by Commission members can be viewed here. Decision Meeting Material_November  Proposed changes/additions of interest to land and mineral owners include:

  • Chairman Gonzales and Representative Flynn propose to eliminate recommendation that the Commission’s name be changed to a name that reflects the agency’s functions.
  • From Representative Raymond:
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The rights of local municipalities to regulate or ban drilling activity within their jurisdictions has been a hot topic over the last few years in several states, especially Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado. Shale development has been intense in all three states, but their reactions to urban drilling regulation have differed markedly.

In Colorado, voters threatened to force a ballot initiative to ban hydraulic fracturing in the state. In response, the governor cobbled together a compromise that included the appointment of a task force to examine the impact of drilling on urban environments and make recommendations. That task force, the Colorado Oil and Gas Task Force, issued nine recommendations in February of this year. They make for interesting reading.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has been conducting hearings across the state on two of the Task Force recommendations, both of which would require the COGCC to implement regulations. Both of the recommendations would increase municipalities’ participation in the permitting process for wells within their jurisdictions. Recommendation #17 would require companies planning “Large Scale Oil and Gas Facilities” to consult with local governments to try to reach agreement on the siting of those facilities and to engage in mediation if the parties are unable to reach agreement. Recommendation #20 would require companies to provide local governments a five-year plan for their drilling and development within their jurisdictions, to allow the municipalities to include those plans in the municipalities’ own long-range plans.

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Representative Drew Darby, Chair of the Texas House Committee on Energy Resources, wrote the members of the committee to ask their input on issues that should be addressed by the committee during the interim between legislative sessions. A copy of the letter can be viewed here: Darby letter.

Of the 33 energy-related bills referred to the committee, it reported 22 favorably, nine were passed by the legislature, and two of those were vetoed by the governor – so seven became law. They are described in Darby’s letter.

Darby mentions two issues he believes should be suggested to the Speaker of the House as “Interim Charges” for the committee to study:  allocation wells and oil equipment theft. The legislature passed House Bill 3291, which would have increased penalties for oil-field theft, but the governor vetoed it, declaring it “overly broad.” Darby also reminds the committee that the Texas Sunset Commission will be reviewing the Texas Railroad Commission during the interim, and he expects the Sunset report to be a “significant focus of the Committee next session.”

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The Texas legislative session has now ended. I followed 44 bills identified as potentially affecting the interests of mineral owners. Only two of those bills passed.

HB 40

The bill that produced the most controversy was HB 40, introduced by Rep. Darby, chair of the House Energy Resources Committee. It restricts the ability of municipalities to regulate oil and gas operations within their jurisdictions. This bill and several other bills were introduced in response to the referendum passed by the City of Denton barring hydraulic fracturing. The bill allows cities to adopt ordinances related to oil and gas activity only if the ordinance regulates “aboveground activity … at or above the surface of the ground, including … fire and emergency response, traffic, lights, or noise, or imposing notice or reasonable setback requirements,” is “commercially reasonable,” and “does not effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation conducted by a reasonably prudent operator.” The bill defines “commercially reasonable” as:

a condition that would allow a reasonably prudent operator to fully, effectively, and economically exploit, develop, produce, process, and transport oil and gas, as determined based on the objective standard of a reasonably prudent operator and not on an individualized assessment of an actual operator’s capacity to act.

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