Articles Posted in Recent Cases

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Our firm represents the Opielas, who are involved in a dispute with the Railroad Commission and Magnolia Oil & Gas over a horizontal well located partly on the Opielas’ property. The case has made its way from the Commission to the trial court in Travis County, then to the Austin Court of Appeals, and the case is now pending on petition for review in the Texas Supreme Court.

Briefly, the facts are these:

Enervest applied for a permit for an allocation well to be located partly on the Opielas’ ranch of 640 acres in Karnes County. When the Opielas purchased the ranch it was under an old oil and gas lease held by some producing vertical wells. The Opielas acquired all of the mineral estate but previous owners had sold 3/4ths of the royalty. The lease contains a pooling clause, but a special provision says there can be no pooling for oil wells.

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In re Dallas County, Texas and Marian Brown, in her official capacity as Dallas County Sheriff, No. 24-0426, Texas Supreme Court, filed May 23, 2024.

In 2023 the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 1045. The bill creates a new system of “business courts” having jurisdiction of high-stakes business cases. Notably, the judges of these new trial courts are not elected but are appointed by the Governor. The bill also creates a new 15th Court of Appeals to hear appeals of such cases, as well as any case against the State, state agencies and state officials.  This is the first case to challenge the constitutionality of SB 1045. Before the bill, suits against the State were filed in Austin and appeals went to the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin.

Dallas County and others sued members of the Health and Human Services Commission in Travis County, alleging that HHSC has failed to timely transfer inmates from the Dallas County jail to state hospitals who have been held not competent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity, as required by law. The trial court denied the defendants’ plea to the jurisdiction, and defendants appealed that ruling to the Austin Court of Appeals. The defendants filed a statement in that court indicating that, on September 1, 2024 (when the 15th Court of Appeals becomes effective), the appeal would be automatically transferred to the new 15th Court created by SB 1045, because the suit involves a case against state officials.

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Today the Texas Supreme Court decided Carl v. Hilcorp Energy Co, No. 24-0036. Its opinion addresses certified questions submitted to it by the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals concerning a class action suit pending in that court.

The Carls’ lease provided for payment of gas royalty based on its “market value at the well.” The lease also provided that royalty must be paid on gas “sold or used off the premises.” Hilcorp used some of the gas produced “off the premises” to transport or process the gas produced from the lease. Hilcorp did not pay royalty on the gas used. The Texas Supreme Court agreed with Hilcorp that it owes no royalty on the gas used off the premises.

This is another in a long line of cases in which the Court relies on its flawed reasoning in Heritage Resources v. Nationsbank. The Court’s reasoning: because the measure of gas royalty is “market value at the well,” the lessor must bear its share of post-production costs. Hilcorp’s use of gas for post-production costs must therefore be part of the cost borne by the lessor. One way to do that is to not pay royalty on the gas used. So, even though the lease provides for royalty on gas “used off the premises,” Hilcorp need not pay royalty on such gas as long as it is used to enhance the value of the gas after it leaves the lease. If Hilcorp were to use some of the gas for other purposes, royalty would be due.

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Yesterday the US Supreme Court issued its opinion in DeVillier et al. v. Texas, No. 22-913, allowing 120 landowners to proceed with their takings claims against the State.

I wrote about this case when the Court agreed to hear it.

The Summary of facts in the Court’s Syllabus describes the issue:

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In January the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals submitted a “certified question” to the Texas Supreme Court. Federal courts have jurisdiction over cases involving only state-law issues if the parties are from different states – diversity jurisdiction. This is one such case. Carl v. Hilcorp Energy Company, No. 24-0036.

The trustees of the Carl/White Trust sued Hilcorp Energy on behalf of royalty owners with language in their leases providing that the lessee must pay royalties on gas “sold or used off the premises.” The suit seeks class-action status on behalf of these royalty owners. The Trust’s lease also provides that royalty on gas should be paid on the “market value at the well.” Hilcorp moved to dismiss the claim, arguing that under a “market-value-at-the-well” lease, Hilcorp was allowed to deduct all post-production costs and therefore had no obligation to pay for gas used in processing. The trial court agreed with Hilcorp and dismissed the case; the Trust appealed to the 5th Circuit.

When a case in federal court is governed by state law, a federal appeals court may ask the state’s top court to opine on a question of law critical to its case – to submit the question as a “certified question” to the state court.  The 5th Circuit did so here, asking the Texas Supreme Court: “can a market-value-at-the-well lease containing an off-lease-use-of-gas clause and a free-on-lease-use clause be interpreted to allow for the deduction of gas used off lease in the post-production process?” The Texas Supreme Court agreed to consider the question, and the parties have submitted briefs. Two amicus briefs, one from Texas Oil & Gas Association supporting Hilcorp’s arguments, and one by Texas Land & Mineral Association and National Association of Royalty Owners-Texas, Inc., supporting the Trusts’ arguments.

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This year the Texas Supreme Court decided Van Dyke v. The Navigator Group, trying to give some structure to cases construing conveyances and reservations of royalty interests-whether fixed or floating. I wrote about the case last February. Since then two court of appeals cases have grappled with the issue: Royalty Asset Holdings II, LP v. Bayswater Fund III-A LLC, in the El Paso Court of Appeals, No. 08-22-00108-CV; and Thomson v. Hoffman, in the San Antonio Court of Appeals, No. 04-19-00771-CV.

In Royalty Asset, the court construed the following royalty reservation:

EXCEPT that Grantors, for themselves and their heirs and assigns, retain, reserve and except from this conveyance and [sic] undivided 1/4th of the land owner’s usual 1/8th royalty interest (being a full 1/32nd royalty interest) payable or accruing under the terms of any existing or future oil, gas or mineral lease pertaining to or covering the oil, gas and other minerals on, in or under the above described [sic] land. It is distinctly understood and agreed that the interest in royalties hereby retained and reserved by Grantors does not participate in any bonus or delay rentals payable for or accruing under the terms of any such oil, gas and mineral lease or leases, and it shall not be necessary for Grantors to join in, execute or ratify any oil, gas and mineral lease covering said above described tract, the right and privilege to execute any oil, gas and mineral lease or leases covering the full mineral interest in the above described tract being hereby granted and conveyed to Grantees herein, their heirs and assigns.

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Last year the Texas Supreme Court decided Mitchell v. MAP Resources, holding that a mineral owner whose interest was sold at a tax foreclosure could collaterally attack the judgment and introduce extrinsic evidence that he had not been properly served with notice of the suit and therefore was deprived of due process under the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. Gill v. Hill is another such case. The El Paso Court of Appeals ruled against the plaintiff, with one judge dissenting. The Texas Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, where it is now pending.

The tax foreclosure in Gill v. Hill took place in 1999. Suit seeking to set aside the foreclosure was filed in 2019. The El Paso Court of Appeals distinguished the case from Mitchell v. MAP Resources. In both cases the taxpayer was served by posting on the courthouse door. In Mitchell, both sides moved for summary judgment, and the party seeking to set aside the foreclosure introduced extrinsic evidence that she could easily have been personally served because her name and address were in courthouse deed records and appraisal district records. In Gill v. Hill, the defendant moved for summary judgment on the ground that the suit was barred by limitations. The plaintiff alleged that he could have been personally served but did not move for summary judgment or introduce any extrinsic evidence.

The Court of Appeals held it was plaintiff’s burden to raise a fact issue on whether adequate notice of suit was given by introducing extrinsic evidence. The dissent would hold that the defendant had the burden on summary judgment to show that proper notice of the suit was given.

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In this case, decided last April, the Texas Supreme Court held that the force majeure clause in an oil and gas lease could not be relied on to extend the date by which a well had to be commenced to keep the lease in force.

The facts are these:

MRC owned a lease covering 4,000 acres in Loving County. The lease provided that, at the end of the primary term, the lease would terminate except as to designated production units around existing wells unless MRC engaged in “continuous drilling”—spudding a well within 180 days after the spud date of the previous well. Prior to the end of the primary term MRC had drilled five wells on the lease. Under continuous drilling clause, MRC had to spud a well by May 21, 2016 to avoid partial termination of the lease.

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Twenty years ago I wrote an article, “Issues Concerning Royalty Valuations and Deductions,” published in the Petroleum Accounting and Financial Management Journal. One of those issues I discussed was the recurring problem of post-production cost deductions. In the article I contrasted the approaches to lease construction illustrated by two cases: Heritage Resources v. NationsBank, 939 S.W.2d 118 (Tex. 1996), and Rogers v. Westerman Farm Co., 29 P.3d 887 (Colo. 2001). A recent decision from the Colorado Supreme Court, Board of County Commissioners of Boulder County, Colorado v. Crestone Peak Resources Operating, LLC, 2023 WL 8010221 (Nov. 20, 2023), further illustrates the contrasting approaches taken by Texas and Colorado courts in construing oil and gas leases.

First, Heritage v. NationsBank and Rogers v. Westerman. Both decided whether post-production costs could be charged to the royalty owner in two oil and gas leases. The NationsBank lease provided 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.” But because the lease provided for gas royalties based on “market value at the well,” the Texas Supreme Court held that transportation costs were deductible from NationsBank’s royalty. The Westerman lease provided that the royalty would be “one-eighth of the gross proceeds received from the sale of such produced substances where same is sold at the mouth of the well, or … if not sold at the mouth of the well, … one-eighth of the market value thereof at the mouth of the well, but in no event more than one-eighth of the actual amount received by the lessee for the sale thereof.” The Colorado Supreme Court held that the lessee must bear all post-production costs necessary to get the gas into “marketable condition.”

The Heritage court hung its opinion on the term “at the mouth of the well.” Since royalty is to be based on the market value at the well, there can be no deductions from that value, so the no-deductions clause was “surplusage.” The Westerman court instead said the term “at the mouth of the well … says nothing about the parties’ intent with respect to allocation of costs,” and concluded that the lease is “silent with respect to allocation of costs.”

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This case illustrates an increasing problem related to salt water disposal in the Permian Basin. Recent articles in Texas Monthly and other publications have documented leaks from old abandoned wells caused by injection of massive quantities of salt water into shallow formations.Iskandia Energy Operating, Inc. v. SWEPI LP, No. 08-22-00103-CV, El Paso Court of Appeals, October 31, 2023.

Iskandia acquired oil and gas leases covering some 5,000 acres in Loving County, along with more than 100 producing wells. Iskandia planned to re-stimulate the wells and increase production.  The wells produce from formations in the Delaware Mountain Group in the Delaware Basin lobe of the Permian Basin–the Cherry Canyon, Bell Canyon and Brushy Canyon formations. These formations are just above the Bone Springs and Wolfcamp formations, which are the principal formations being drilled by operators in the Delaware lobe. Iskandia’s wells produce oil and salt water; the salt water is re-injected into the producing formation. Iskandia produces and re-injects about 6,000 barrels per day on its leases, which maintains the formation pressure and facilitates continued oil production.

SWEPI owns and operates leases adjacent to the Iskandia leases and is drilling wells in the Bone Springs and Wolfcamp. These wells also produce large volumes of salt water, and SWEPI has drilled disposal wells on its leases that inject that water into the Delaware Mountain Group formations. Iskandia produced evidence that SWEPI is injecting more than 2 million barrels per month into the DMG, and has injected more than 75 million barrels in just three years.

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