Articles Posted in Recent Cases

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A reader alerted me to a Texas Supreme Court mandamus proceeding about unpaid royalties, In Re The Estate of Ebbie Edward Allen, Jr., No. 19-0027. Lawyers for the Relator asked the court to require the Texas Comptroller to audit Chesapeake and require it to deposit royalties not paid to Mr. Allen’s estate into the state’s unclaimed properties fund. The Supreme Court refused to take the case. The facts illustrate a little-known aspect of what can happen when royalties owed are not paid.

According to the petition, Ebbie Allen was an elderly man who lived alone on his 705-acre property in Brazos County and who signed an oil and gas lease in 1993, which was assigned to Chesapeake. In 1994, Chesapeake completed a horizontal well on the property and produced it until 2009, when it sold the lease to Envervest. Chesapeake produced 26,000 barrels and 2 Bcf of gas from the well. It sent a division order to Mr. Allen but he refused to sign it because he disagreed with the royalty decimal on the division order. Mr. Allen made attempts to resolve the royalty issue but never succeeded, and he subsequently passed away. Neither he nor his estate ever received any royalties on Chesapeake’s production. (After Enervest purchased the lease, the royalty issue was resolved and Mr. Allen’s estate received royalties from Enervest’s production, including some $15,000 in royalties that Enervest had deposited to the Comptroller’s unpaid properties fund.)

Chesapeake refused the Estate’s demands for payment, based on the four-year statute of limitations for royalty claims. Chesapeake also failed to deposit any of the royalties with the Comptroller. The Comptroller refused the Estate’s request that it audit Chesapeake’s records for unclaimed royalties that by law must be remitted to the Comptroller. In response to the Estate’s mandamus petition, the Comptroller responded that it had complete discretion whether and when to conduct audits and so could not be compelled to do so.

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The Texas Supreme Court has denied motion for rehearing of its opinion in Burlington Resources Oil & Gas Company v. Texas Crude Energy, No. 17-0266. The case addresses deductibility of post-production costs in the context of an overriding royalty. The case may, however, have implications for post-production-cost deductions in oil and gas royalty clauses.TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_Small

Texas Crude acquired oil and gas leases in Live Oak, Karnes and Bee Counties, and entered into an agreement with Burlington to develop those leases. The parties agreed that any oil and gas lease acquired by either party within the designated area would be part of the development agreement, and that Texas Crude would receive an overriding royalty interest in all leases within the development area. Texas Crude subsequently sued Burlington over various alleged breaches of the development agreement, including the deduction of post-production costs from Texas Crude’s overriding royalties. The parties filed summary judgment motions asking the trial court to construe the language in the assignments of overriding royalty, and the trial court ruled that post-production costs were not deductible.  The parties agreed to seek an interlocutory appeal of this issue, which the court granted. The Corpus Christi Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case, and it affirmed the judgment of the trial court.  516 S.W.3d 638. Burlington then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which reversed and remanded, holding that the language of the overriding royalty assignments permits deduction of (some?) post-production costs.

The pertinent language of all of the overriding royalty assignments is identical:

The overriding royalty interest share of production shall be delivered to ASSIGNEE or to its credit into the pipeline, tank or other receptacle to which any well or wells on such lands may be connected, free and clear of all royalties and other burdens and all costs and expenses except the taxes thereon or attributable thereto, or ASSIGNOR, at ASSIGNEE’S election, shall pay to ASSIGNEE, for ASSIGNEE’S overriding royalty oil, gas or other minerals, the applicable percentage of the value of the oil, gas or other minerals, as applicable, produced and saved under the leases. “Value”, as used in this Assignment, shall refer to (i) in the event of an arm’s length sale on the leases, the amount realized from such sale of such production and any products thereof, (ii) in the event of an arm’s length sale off of the leases, the amount realized for the sale of such production and any products thereof, and (iii) in all other cases, the market value at the wells.

The unanimous decision, opinion by Justice Blacklock, held that the controlling language of the assignments is “delivered to ASSIGNEE or to its credit into the pipeline, tank or other receptacle to which any well or wells on such lands may be connected …” Texas Crude argued that the controlling language was in the definition of “Value”: “the amount realized from such sale of such production and any products thereof.” Texas Crude contended that under the court’s prior opinion in Chesapeake v. Hyder, 483 S.W.3d 870 (2016), a royalty based on the “amount realized,” without more, is free of post-production costs, and that the “into-the-pipeline” language would not be relevant unless Texas Crude elected to take its royalty share of production in kind. Continue reading →

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Hays County and the City of Kyle, and private landowners, have sued Kinder Morgan, the Texas Railroad Commission and its commissioners over the route for Kinder Morgan’s Permian Highway Pipeline, a gas pipeline 42 inches in diameter, set to cross through the Texas hill country and Hays County.  KM-Permian-PL-routeKM-permian-PL-route-Hays-CoTexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_SmallThe suit claims that the RRC has failed to establish regulations that implement the Legislature’s requirement, imposed by Section 121.052 of the Texas Utilities Code, to “establish fair and equitable rules for the full control and supervision of the pipelines … in all their relations to the public” and to “prescribe and enforce rules for the government and control of pipelines … in respect to transporting … facilities.”  The petition explains that, to obtain the right to condemn a pipeline easement, the pipeline company only needs to file a form T-4 with the RRC. The Commission “conducts no investigation, evaluates no alternative routes, entertains no adversarial inquiry, provides no notice, allows no hearing, and considers no evidence.” “The pipeline’s chosen route crosses some of the most sensitive environmental features in Central Texas and the Texas Hill Country, including the recharge zones of the Edwards and Edwards-Trinity Aquifers (which provide the drinking water supply for towns and cities such as Fredericksburg and Blanco) and endangered species habitat.”

The suit asks the court to find that the RRC has unconstitutionally delegated to Kinder Morgan the legislative and constitutional requirement that a government entity review and determine the necessity for the pipeline route, and enjoining Kinder Morgan from proceeding with condemnation until that has been accomplished.

Plaintiffs are represented by Richards Rodriguez & Skeith, LLP and Renea Hicks. The suit is No. D-1-GN-19-002161, in the 345, District Court of Travis County. A copy of the petition can be seen here:  01-OrigPet-Sansom

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The San Antonio Court of Appeals handed down its opinion last week in Strickhausen v. Petrohawk Operating Company, No. 04-18-00636-CV.  The issue: Did Ms. Strickhausen ratify a pooled unit not authorized by her lease, or is she estopped from contesting the validity of the unit, because she accepted royalty checks calculated on her unit interest in production? The trial court held that she did; the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding that there were issues of fact as to whether she intended to ratify or was estopped.

The issues relate to Petrohawk’s WK Unit 4 1H Well in La Salle County:

WK-Unit-4Ms. Strickhausen owns a 1/2 mineral interest in Tract 3 shown above. Her lease prohibits pooling without her consent. Without obtaining her consent, Petrohawk filed a pooled unit designation including her lease and drilled the well. It then asked Ms. Strickhausen to ratify the unit. Settlement negotiations were unsuccessful. Petrohawk sent Ms. Strickhusen checks for her share of unit production, which she cashed, but her attorney continued to tell Petrohawk that she objected to the pooled unit.

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Last week the Texas Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Texas Outfitters, Limited, LLC v. Nicholson, No. 17-0509, once again addressing the duty of the holder of executive rights to minerals owned by another. The Court affirmed a judgment of $867,654.32 plus interest and costs against Texas Outfitters for breaching that duty.

Dora Jo Carter owned the surface estate of 1,082 acres of land in Frio County. She and her two children owned 50% of the minerals; the other 50% were owned by the Hindes Family. In 2002 the Carters sold the land to Texas Outfitters, owned by Frank Fackovec, for $1 million, financing a part of the purchase price. Fackovec intended to live on the ranch and operate a hunting business. The Carters sold Texas Outfitters 1/24 of the minerals along with the land, and also conveyed to Texas Outfitters the exclusive right to lease the 11/24 mineral interest retained by the Carters. Fancovec wanted the right to lease the entire 50% mineral interest to be sure his surface estate was protected if and when oil and gas development took please. This right to lease the Carters’ minerals, the executive right, became the source of the later controversy.

In June 2010 the Hindes family leased their 50% mineral interest in the ranch to El Paso Exploration for $1,750 per acre and 25% royalty. El Paso made the same offer to Fackovec, but he declined the offer, despite the Carters’ request that he accept it. The Carters and Facovec then had settlement negotiations, resulting in a tentative settlement in which (1) Texas Outfitters would convey back to the Carters the executive rights to their 11/24 mineral interest, (2) the parties would agree to as-yet unspecified restrictive covenants burdening the mineral estate for the protection of the surface estate, (3) the Carters would forgive $263,000 of the note they held from Texas Outfitters, and the parties would sign a lease to El Paso. This settlement later fell apart over failure to reach agreement on the terms of the restrictive covenants. The Carters sued Texas Outfitters and Fackovec in June 2011, alleging that he had breached his duty as holder of their executive rights by refusing to lease to El Paso. Continue reading →

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In Bell v. Chesapeake Energy Corporation, No. 04-18-00129-CV, the San Antonio Court of Appeals heard a permissive accelerated appeal of an issue addressed by the trial court in a multi-district litigation brought by many royalty owners in the Eagle Ford against Chesapeake, In re: Chesapeake Eagle Ford Royalty Litigation, involving multiple claims against Chesapeake for breach of the plaintiffs’ oil and gas leases. The Court issued its opinion last week. The issue addressed by the Court was the interpretation of clauses in two oil and gas leases requiring the lessee to either drill and offset well or pay compensatory royalty.

The trial court in the multi-district litigation was asked to construe offset clauses in several oil and gas leases, among them the Bell and Ward leases. Those two leases contain similar clauses regarding protection against drainage by wells drilled on adjacent leases. I will quote the Bell lease here:

In the event a well (“Adjacent Well”) producing Oil or Gas in Paying Quantities is drilled and completed after the date of this Lease on land under which Lessor does not own the quantity of minerals or royalty as under the lands covered by this Lease, and such Adjacent Well is draining the Leased Premises or is deemed draining if the adjacent Well is located within three hundred thirty (330) feet of the Leased Premises, or, when Lessee has an economic interest in said Adjacent Well and said Adjacent Well is located within four hundred sixty seven (467) feet of the Leased Premises (in the case of a Vertical Well, distance will be measured from the surface location or bottom hole location of the Adjacent Well, whichever is closer; in the case of a Horizontal Well distance will be measured from the surface location or the subsurface path of a horizontal drainbore, from its point of entry into the productive horizon to its terminus, whichever is closer), then Lessee agrees to drill such offset wells which is[sic]reasonably designed to protect the Leased Premises from drainage, or at the option of Lessee, shall pay to Lessor the Compensatory Royalties set forth below, or execute and deliver to Lessor a release in recordable form releasing acreage in an amount equivalent to the number of acres required or permitted by the Texas Railroad Commission to drill an offset well to the formation of such Adjacent Well. Lessee shall have ninety (90) days from the date of first production of such Adjacent Well within which to Commence Actual Drilling Operations of an offset well or release offsetting acreage, and thereafter, Lessee’s sole obligation shall be to pay Compensatory Royalties as set forth herein. …

In lieu of Drilling an Offset well required hereunder or releasing acreage as provided above, then Lessee shall pay to Lessor as a Compensatory Royalty an amount equal to the Royalty Share of Gross Proceeds of production from the Adjacent Well. Continue reading →

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Wade Caldwell, San Antonio attorney and President of NARO-Texas, published the article below in the recent NARO newsletter. He has kindly allowed me to republish it here.

And Happy New Year.

The Take Away

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The Texas Supreme Court denied the landowners’ motion for rehearing last Friday in Murphy v. Adams, rejecting their claim that Murphy Exploration had breached their oil and gas lease by failing to drill an offset well or pay liquidated damages. The Court was divided 5-4 on the issue when it issued its original opinion, and the court remained divided 5-4 on rehearing, but both the majority and the dissent issued corrected opinions.

Our firm represented the landowners in the case, so I must admit that it is difficult for me to be objective in reporting on this case. I wrote about the case when the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the landowners, reversing a summary judgment in Murphy’s favor issued by the trial court.

The landowners’ lease contains the following provision:

It is hereby specifically agreed and stipulated that in the event a well is completed as a producer of oil and/or gas on land adjacent and contiguous to the leased premises, and within 467 feet of the premises covered by this lease, that Lessee herein is hereby obligated to, within 120 days after the completion date of the well or wells on the adjacent acreage, as follows:

(1) to commence drilling operations on the leased acreage and thereafter continue the drilling of such off-set well or wells with due diligence to a depth adequate to test the same formation from which the well or wells are producing from on the adjacent acreage; or

(2) pay the Lessor royalties as provided for in this lease as if an equivalent amount of production of oil and/or gas were being obtained from the off-set location on these leased premises as that which is being produced from the adjacent well or wells; or

(3) release an amount of acreage sufficient to constitute a spacing unit equivalent in size to the spacing unit that would be allocated under the lease to such well or wells on the adjacent lands, as to the zones or strata producing in such adjacent well.

Continue reading →

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently handed down its opinion in Seeligson v. Devon Energy Production Co., Cause No. 17-10320. The case is an appeal from a decision in the District Court for the Northern District of Texas certifying a class of royalty owners to sue Devon for breach of the duty to market gas produced under the royalty owners’ leases. The Fifth Circuit affirmed all but one of the trial court’s findings on the appropriateness of allowing the class action to proceed.TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_Small

The question of whether class actions are appropriate in federal courts are governed by federal rules and cases, but the class certification rules are very similar to those applied by Texas state courts. Although class actions are common in other contexts, such as suits by shareholders against their companies, they have not generally been successful in suits by royalty owners. The barriers created by the requirements to certify a class have usually been too great.

In Seeligson v. Devon, the plaintiffs claim that Devon breached its implied duty to market their gas. Devon’s wells in the Barnett Shale field are connected to a gathering system called the Bridgeport System, owned by an affiliate of Devon called Devon Gas Services. The gas is gathered and transported to the Bridgeport Gas Processing Plant, owned and operated by Devon Gas Services. Under a contract between Devon Energy and Devon Gas Services, Devon Gas Services takes delivery of the gas at the well and runs it through the plant, which separates the dry gas from the natural gas liquids and sells the dry gas and NGLs separately.  Under the contract, Devon Gas Services pays Devon Energy 82.5% of a published industry index price for the dry gas and NGLs. Devon Gas Services thus retains 17.5% of the value of the dry gas and NGLs to compensate it for the gathering and processing of the gas. Plaintiffs claim that this arrangement breaches Devon Energy’s duty to market because the 17.5% is in effect a processing fee that is far greater than the market rate for processing. Continue reading →

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TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_SmallThe Texas Supreme Court recently refused to consider the case of Devon Energy Production Company v. Apache Corporation, decided by the Eastland Court of Appeals – 550 S.W.3d 259. The case presents issues that, remarkably, have not previously been considered by a Texas appellate court.

Norma Jean Hester leased her one-third mineral interest in lands in Glasscock County to Apache, reserving a 1/4th royalty. The other mineral owners in the land (the Lessor Plaintiffs) leased their two-thirds mineral interest to Devon, reserving a 1/4th royalty.  Apache and Devon were unable to agree on terms for a joint operating agreement to develop the property, and Apache drilled seven producing wells on the land without Devon’s participation. Devon became what is commonly called a “non-consenting co-tenant.”  Devon became entitled to two-thirds of the net revenue from each well after Apache had recovered the costs of drilling and production (“payout”).  But Devon did not pay its Lessor Plaintiffs their royalty on production, claiming that Apache owed the royalties to the Lessor Plaintiffs. The Lessor Plaintiffs sued Devon and Apache for their royalties.

The trial court ruled that Apache owed no royalty payments to the Lessor Plaintiffs, and that Devon owed the Lessor Plaintiffs royalties, but only on revenues received by Devon after the wells had paid out.  The Lessor Plaintiffs then settled their claims against Devon, and Devon appealed. Continue reading →

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