Provisions in oil and gas leases requiring the lessor’s consent to assignment of the lessee’s interest are common. A lessor may have reasonable concerns about assignment of the lease, especially if the lessor is also the owner of the surface estate of the leased premises. The lessor may have agreed to lease in part because of the reputation and financial condition of the lessee, and he or she may justifiably wish to have control over whether the lease can be assigned to a third party.
Lessees, on the other hand, dislike consent-to-assign provisions in leases. Such provisions may substantially impair the lessee’s perceived value of the leasehold estate it has paid for. Leases are bought and sold like commodities. In the Permian Basin last year, more than $25 billion of transactions took place transferring mineral leasehold interests. Those transactions are made more difficult when lessors’ consents must be obtained to close the transaction.
Before closing a deal to purchase a package of oil and gas leases, the buyer will review the terms of the leases, and included in that review will be identifying leases that require consent to assign. Typically such review will uncover consent-to-assign provisions, in which event the buyer will have to determine whether obtaining such consent will be a condition to closing the deal. In my experience, companies acquiring leases will typically divide the leases containing consent-to-assign provisions into two categories, those with “soft-consent” provisions and those with “hard-consent” provisions. A “hard-consent” provision specifies the consequences of failure to obtain consent — for example, that such a breach is grounds for cancelling the lease, or that specified liquidated damages must be paid for the breach. A “soft consent” is one that prohibits assignment without consent but does not specify a remedy for the breach. Companies may elect to acquire leases with soft-consent provisions without requiring the seller to obtain consent, based on the reasoning that the lessor will have to prove damages for the breach, that damages would be difficult to prove, and that the lessor probably will not sue for the breach. Without a specified remedy for breach in the lease, in particular a right to terminate for the breach, the reasoning is that termination of the lease for breach of the consent-to-assign provision would not be a remedy available to the lessor. The buyer will, however, require the seller to obtain consent for leases containing a hard-consent lease provision, especially if it specifies that breach of the provision would allow the lessor to terminate the lease.