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The Texas Supreme Court has ruled 5 to 4 that Chesapeake cannot deduct post-production costs from the Hyder family’s gas royalties.

The case in the Supreme Court actually addresses only the Hyders’ overriding royalty. As part of the Hyders’ oil and gas lease, the Hyders agreed that Chesapeake could use their land to drill horizontal wells producing from their neighbors’ land — the surface location on the Hyders’ land, but all of the productive lateral of the well under the neighbor’s property. In exchange, Chesapeake agreed to pay the Hyders a 5% royalty on production from such wells. Because the Hyders have no mineral interest in the lands from which these wells produce, the parties referred to this royalty as an overriding royalty.

The Hyders’ lease contains very specific provisions prohibiting Chesapeake from deducting post-production costs from the Hyders’ royalty on production from their lands. But the lease provision granting the overriding royalty on production from wells bottomed under their neighbors’ property is not so clear. Although Chesapeake originally fought to deduct post-production costs from both the royalties and the overriding royalties, the trial court and court of appeals ruled for the Hyders on all claims, and Chesapeake elected to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court only on the issue of deductibility of post-production costs from the Hyders’ overriding royalty.

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Yesterday the Texas Railroad Commission held the first of two scheduled show cause hearings called by the RRC to determine whether two salt water disposal wells near Azle, Texas should be shut down because they caused earthquakes in the area. The earthquakes in that region of Parker County are the subject of a recently published study by scientists at Southern Methodist University, which concluded that the quakes were probably caused by the injection wells. One of the wells is owned by XTO Energy, the other by Enervest. Enervest’s show cause hearing is scheduled for next week.

The XTO hearing was before two hearings examiners, Marshall Enquist and Paul Dubois. Hearings examiners act as administrative law judges in RRC hearings; they then propose a decision to the three commissioners, who can either accept or reject their proposed decision.

Only XTO appeared at the hearing, represented by their attorney Tim George, who called three witnesses and introduced more than 30 exhibits. XTO argued that the earthquakes were natural phenomena not caused by their injection activities. No witnesses appeared to oppose XTO’s position. A staff attorney at the RRC did ask some questions of XTO’s witnesses and offered the SMU study as evidence, over XTO’s objection. Tim George argued that the study was hearsay and that the scientists were not available to be cross-examined on the study. Marshall Enquist admitted the study as evidence over George’s objection, saying “in a way, [the SMU study] is why we’re here today.”

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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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The Texas Legislature has passed a supplemental appropriation of $4.471 million to fund a study of the cause of recent earthquakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The money will be used to fund the purchase and use of seismic monitoring equipment and modeling of reservoir behavior, testing any connection between oil and gas activity and the recent swarms of quakes in the region.

The Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas will lead the study in collaboration with other Texas universities, including the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The legislation requires formation of a nine-member technical advisory committee to direct the study. Members of the committee must include two members from universities who have seismic or reservoir expertise, to experts from the oil and gas industry, and the Texas Railroad Commission seismologist, Craig Pearson. A report must be provided to the Legislature by December 2016.

It is notable that the Legislature chose not to entrust the study to the Texas Railroad Commission, even though industry representatives favored that position. The Commission’s three elected commissioners rely heavily on contributions from the industry to fund their campaigns, and until the recent seismic activity in the DFW region, the commissioners refused to recognize the connection between earthquakes and oil and gas production in the Azle area of the Barnett Shale. Last month, a team of scientists published a paper concluding that the Azle seismic activity was more than likely linked to salt water injection wells in the vicinity. Those scientists testified before a legislative committee about their findings.

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Two recent articles brought to mind the trade-offs in the debate over hydraulic fracturing.

First, the Department of Environmental Conservation of New York State issued its Final Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, on the environmental impacts of allowing hydraulic fracturing in New York. New York has had a moratorium on fracking for the last several years, even though a substantial portion of the Marcellus formation underlies the state. It appears that New York is headed for a permanent ban on the practice.

I haven’t studied the EIS, which runs to several hundred pages. But it is a thorough catalogue and discussion of the environmental impacts of the drilling boom from fracking and horizontal drilling, most of which we know well by now: water use, surface spills, groundwater impacts, waste disposal, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, health risks, visual impacts on the landscape, truck traffic, seismicity — all are discussed in great detail.

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Google has teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund to detect leaks in gas lines in the Los Angeles Area, Boston, Indianapolis, Staten Island, Syracuse, and Burlington, Vermont. Google attached methane detectors to the cars it uses to create its street map images and has mapped the locations where it found levels of methane high enough to indicate pipeline methane leaks. A great use of new technology for a public purpose. View Google’s maps here.  EDF has teamed up with industry and scientists to attack methane emissions, part of EDF’s efforts to combat global warming.

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An excellent article by Judon Fambrough of the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, about how oil and gas leases can be extended beyond there primary term, can be found here. Great tips about how to avoid pitfalls in lease terms. Mr. Fambrough has written many good articles about negotiating oil and gas leases.

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Modern oil and gas leases often contain restrictions on the right of the lessee to assign the lease to third parties. The lease may require the consent of the lessor to any assignment, or it may impose conditions on the right to assign — for example, that the lessee retain an interest in the lease and/or remain operator.

Recently I received a draft of an article that will be published next year in the Buffalo Law Review addressing the validity of restrictions on assignments in oil and gas leases, and the authors asked that I make it available on this blog. It is titled “The Validity of Restraints on Alienation in an Oil and Gas Lease,” and it is authored by  Luke Myer and Rory Ryan, professors at Baylor Law School. There are actually two draft articles, one explaining the issue in layman’s terms and a second providing a more scholarly legal analysis with citations. The second article is titled “Aggregate Alienability.” The articles I think give a good analysis of the issue. There is actually little authority on whether restrictions on assignment, or “restraints on alienability,” in an oil and gas lease are valid. The authors make a good argument that such restrictions are valid. Good information for oil and gas lawyers, including tips on how to draft restrictions that are more likely to be upheld and enforced. The draft articles can be viewed here and here.

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This graphic from Bloomberg article, US Fracklog Triples as Drillers Keep Oil from Market (click to enlarge):

Fracklog

Bloomberg says that these uncompleted wells, if completed (that is, hydraulically fractured), would produce 322,000 bbls/day, equivalent to the current production of Libya. Total drilled but uncompleted wells, according to Bloomberg: 4,731.

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In 2013, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 724, creating the Texas Unclaimed Mineral Proceeds Commission, and charged the commission to study and provide recommendations regarding distribution of unclaimed mineral proceeds held by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. The bill was sponsored by State Representative Ryan Guillen. The Commission met eight times during 2014, took voluminous testimony, and produced a 100-page report last December that is fascinating reading, at least for an oil and gas attorney in Texas. Most Texans know that large portions of South Texas were settled during the 17th and 18th centuries when the territory was governed by the King of Spain and later the government of Mexico. Those governments granted lands to their citizens (including Stephen F. Austin), and many subjects settled in South Texas on the lands granted to them. When Texas gained its independence, it recognized the validity of land grants made by Spain and Mexico. But immigration of settlers from the United States into these territories, prior to and after Texas’ independence, produced social and economic disruption and displacement of some of the Spanish and Mexican settlers and uncertainty regarding their land titles.

Anglo-American newcomers, with clear advantages in their knowledge of the new legal system, its procedures and language, now competed for the natural resources of the region, pressing their legal and economic advantages – supplemented at times by extralegal means – to acquire ownership of the land. In addition, loss of records, the difficulty of locating original boundary lines, the clouds on many of the titles, and complications of collective family ownership were potential sources of disputes and acrimony among competing parties of all stripes. The resulting resentment, sense of dispossession and injustice, suspicion, and bitterness flared into open conflict at times in South Texas in the nineteenth century and, justified or not, lingers even today.

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