Articles Posted in Oil and Gas Law

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A Texarkana Court of Appeals case, Petrohawk Properties, L.P. v. Jones offers some insight into how changes to an oil and gas agreement are analyzed in terms of the statute of frauds. Material changes to the agreement require documentation in writing, but what constitutes a material change to the initial agreement will depend on the circumstances and the specific language used in the agreement. Contracting parties who are concerned about the impact that a modification to a contract can have should take precautions to ensure that the modification of the contract is well documented.

In this case, the Jones family owned some land in Harrison County in East Texas and the family was approached in 2008 by Petrohawk Properties about leasing the oil and gas mineral interests for their property. The parties entered into an agreement that if the Jones could deliver their interests to Petrohawk Properties free and clear of title defects by a closing date of August 15, 2008, the Jones family would be entitled to a leasing bonus of $23,500 per acre. The agreement also provided that Petrohawk would be released from the Agreement if the Jones’s were unable to provide free and clear title to enough acreage to warrant payment of ten million dollars worth of leasing bonuses, which Petrohawk was holding in escrow.

Due to unforeseen delays in preparing the title work, the parties agreed to delay the closing date of the Agreement to August 27, 2008, then to September 17, 2008, then to October 9, 2008, and then to November 6, 2008. Coincidentally, the fall of 2008 was also the time of the United States financial crisis, which prompted Petrohawk to refuse to pay bonus on any acreage supported by title work that was produced by the Jones family more than thirty days after an August 29th closing date on some of the Jones family properties, and terminated the contract. The Jones sued for breach of contract.

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When preparing and executing any type of contract, it is important to be clear on all important terms in the contract. Ambiguities lead to uncertainty, and uncertainty can turn into disputes down the road. Even so, there are times when an oil company has been known to claim an ambiguity, and create a dispute, where none exists. Recently the Texas Supreme Court  considered such a case and had occasion to emphasize that interpretation of contract language should always be reasonable. When the plain language of the contract expressly excludes a portion of land, then that portion of land is not subject to the contract.

In North Shore Energy v. John James Harkins, et al., the Court applied this principle to a gas option contract. In North Shore, the Harkins family signed an option contract with North Shore Energy.   A lease was attached to the contract. North Shore got to choose from among several tracts within a designated tract of land in Goliad County, Texas. The contract had an exhibit that described the land subject to the option as being the land identified in an earlier lease. The land in the earlier lease did not exclude what the parties called the 400.15 acre Hamman lease land. However, the option itself specifically excluded the Hamman lease land.

When North Shore Energy sought to exercise its option contract, it chose a 169.9 acre tract on which to drill. The tract selected by North Shore Energy contained a large portion of the Hamman lease land. A third party, Dynamic Productions Inc., approached the Harkins and requested to lease the Hamman lease land, which included a North Shore Energy well that had been drilled into that Hamman lease land, and the Harkins family obliged and executed a lease for the 400 acre Hamman lease land to Dynamic.

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The oil and gas production industry operates in a tough position. On the one hand, oil and gas production are critical economic drivers in the United States. Oil and gas generates hundreds of thousands of jobs and contributes 8% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

On the other hand, the Texas oil and gas  industry is constantly grappling with environmental concerns and the threat of even more regulation of their activities by the Texas Railroad Commission and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The oil and gas industry is already highly regulated, and yet state and federal government agencies consistently add more regulations on top of those that already exist. One of the recent set of regulations that the industry is facing are rules issued by the EPA concerning reducing methane emissions.

The reasons behind state and federal regulations are often good ones, for instance, concerns about air quality. On the other hand, some regulations are too far-reaching and overly aggressive. For example, where regulations require the adaptation of new technology designed to be cleaner and more environmentally conscious, the high cost of implementing those regulations can force smaller oil and gas producers out of business. That means fewer jobs and a decrease in taxes on oil and gas production that are paid to local governments. Another problem, with federal regulations in particular, is that they are often based on faulty (and sometimes nonexistent) science and take a one-size fits all approach that does not take into account local conditions, technologies and regulations. We end up with a mess!

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In 1924, Cora McCrabb (along with two co-owners) owned 1,448.50 acres of farm and pasture land. In that same year, Cora executed her Last Will and Testament, bequeathing all of her “farm lands and pasture lands” equally to her three grandchildren, Jessie, J.F., and Mary Lee McCrabb. Cora gave the residue of her estate to only one of the grandchildren, Jessie.

In 1927, Cora and her co-owners sold the 1,448.50 acres of “farm lands and pasture lands” in fee simple to J. L. Dubose. Dubose simultaneously conveyed to Cora and her co-owners an undivided one-half interest in the oil, gas, and minerals in and under the 1,448.50 acres of farm lands and pasture lands. Cora did not change her Last Will and Testament. Cora died in 1929.

Many years later, in 2013, the heirs of J.F. and Mary McCrabb filed a petition for a declaration that Cora’s share of the undivided mineral interest under the “farm lands and pasture lands” passed equally to all three grandchildren. The heirs of Jessie McCrabb filed a counterclaim asking for a declaration that Cora’s entire mineral interest passed to Jessie McCrabb alone pursuant to the residuary clause in the 1924 Last Will and Testament. The trial court sided with the heirs of Jesse McCrabb.

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A recent Texas case decided by the San Antonio Court of Appeals, Texas Outfitters Limited, LLC v. Nicholson, offers some lessons on an executive rights owner’s fiduciary duties to the non-executive mineral owner in the context of oil and gas leases. At trial, the executive interest owner, Texas Outfitters, was found to have breached its fiduciary duty and a judgment of $867,654.32 was awarded to the non-executive.

What is “The Executive Right”?

Under Texas law and under the laws of most states, real property can have two co-existing estates – the surface estate and the mineral estate (covering minerals, oil, and gas below the surface). As the Texas Supreme Court has held, the property rights granted by the mineral estate are a “bundle” of rights and one of the “sticks” in the bundle is called the “executive right.” In general, the executive right is the right to make decisions affecting the exploration and development of the mineral estate and, more specifically, is the right to decide whether to execute a mineral lease and to determine the terms of the lease. These concepts were discussed by the Texas Supreme Court in Lesley v. Veterans Land Board of Texas, 352 S.W.3d 479 (Tex. 2011). As discussed in this article, holders of the executive rights sometimes owe fiduciary duties to any non-executive co-tenants.

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Mineral owners in Texas often sign oil and gas leases that include language that requires that oil or gas be produced in commercially paying quantities in order to keep the lease alive. When production falls below that level, the lease may terminate or lapse, and the mineral interest reverts to the landowner, or to other leases with subsequent rights to the property (i.e., top lease holders). In addition, many leases contain what is called a “shut in royalty” clause, which often goes something like this: “where gas from any well or wells capable of producing gas . . . is not sold or used during or after the primary term and this lease is not otherwise maintained in effect, the lessee may pay or tender … shut-in royalty . . . , and if such shut-in royalty is so paid or tendered

and while lessee’s right to pay or tender same is accruing, it shall be considered that gas is being produced in paying quantities, and this lease shall remain in force during each twelve-month period for which shut-in royalty is so paid or tendered . . .” . It is important to notice that the shut in royalty clause can only be invoked if the well in question is capable of producing in paying quantities.

BP America Production Co. v. Red Deer Resources LLC is a case involving a marginal well operated by BP that was producing at very low levels. BP invoked the shut-in royalty clause of their lease  with the mineral owners. However, questions arose as to whether BP’s use of the shut in royalty clause was valid and whether the lease had actually terminated.

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When an oil and gas well is no longer producing (or if it needs major repairs but the production is not sufficient to justify the cost of repairs), Texas Railroad Commission rules require that the well must be plugged. The plugging procedure (which you can read about here) involves cementing the wellbore and is designed to be permanent. The plugging is designed specifically to protect against leaks into aquifers. Unfortunately, occasionally a production or waste water well gets plugged improperly or negligently, and salt water from these wells leaks out over time and on to the adjacent property, resulting in very unhappy property owners. Salt water leakage can cause damage to the surface of the property, such as contaminating the land so that crops can no longer be grown, or can seep through the ground to contaminate aquifers beneath the surface. Of course, plugged wells should not leak, and if they do, the property owner may have an actionable claim against the company that plugged the well.

The case of Ranchero Esperanza, Ltd. v. Marathon Oil Co. addressed a number of issues that arise in this kind of case. Some of these issues, such as standing (i.e., the right to sue), the statute of limitations, the applicability of the discovery rule and when a cause of action accrues, were addressed by the Texas Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso in the Ranchero Esperanza case.

In connection with standing, the Court repeated the well-known legal precept that a cause of action for injury to land is a personal right belonging to the person owning the property at the time of the injury. A subsequent owner can’t recover for an injury committed before their ownership unless they received an express assignment of the cause of action from the former owner. In this case, the injury did not occur until saltwater was released from the plugged well onto the surface of the property in July 2008. Since Ranchero Esperanza was the owner of the property at that time, it had standing.

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When parties enter into agreements concerning the conveyance of mineral royalty interests in Texas, it is extremely important that the language of the conveyance is clear and that the parties know exactly what they are agreeing to in terms of how the royalty interest is structured. The San Antonio Court of Appeals addressed the issue of fixed versus floating royalties in the case of Leal v. Cuanto Antes Mejor LLC.

The case involved forty acres of land in Karnes County, Texas. Phillips sold the land to the Leals, but reserved for himself all minerals and royalties, except for conveying a one fourth “non-participating royalty interest in and to all of the royalty paid on production,” which was conveyed to the Leals. Later, Phillips signed an oil and gas lease with Cuanto Antes Mejor LLC. The Leals and Cuanto Antes Mejor LLC got into a dispute over how the Leals’ royalties should be calculated. The Leals claimed that their royalty interest was a fixed royalty entitling them to royalties for one fourth of production. Cuanto Antes Mejor LLC contended that the Leals were only entitled to a floating royalty.

A Royalty Interest Can Be Conveyed in Two Ways

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When a mineral estate and a surface estate co-exist, there is sometimes conflict. Under Texas law, the owner of the mineral estate is considered to be the “dominant” estate over the surface estate because the mineral owner has the right to use as much of the surface “as is reasonably necessary to produce and remove the minerals” whether the surface owner consents or not. What is “reasonably necessary” has led the Texas courts to develop what is known as the “Accommodation Doctrine.” Often, the mineral estate wins when the rights are weighed under the Accommodation Doctrine, but not always. In the recent case of Virtex Operating Co. v. Bauerle in the San Antonio Court of Appeals, the owner of the surface estate prevailed.

Facts of the Case:


The case involved application of the accommodation doctrine to the Todos Santos Ranch in Dilley, Texas. The Todos Santos Ranch covers approximately 8,500 acres in Frio and Zavala Counties. The surface estate is owned by Robert and Cynthia Bauerle. The mineral estate is owned by ExxonMobil which executed an oil and gas lease with VirTex. Pursuant to the lease, VirTex drilled various wells and now has nine oil-producing wells on the Ranch. There are plans to expand the drilling to 45 wells.

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I get calls every week from folks who have received a letter in the mail offering to purchase their Texas mineral interests. I tell all my clients (and anyone else who will listen) never to sell their mineral interests. There are a number of reasons why:

  1. About 99.9% of the companies who claim to buy mineral interests are scams. What often happens is that they send you a solicitation letter which makes an incredibly high monetary offer for your mineral interests. They ask you to sign a deed, which is either enclosed with the letter or that they send you if you contact them, and request that you send the signed and notarized deed back to them. They then file the deed in the deed records. Then, they contact you and say there were certain ambiguous “problems” with your title to your minerals, or the market for mineral interests has changed, or some other nonsense. They then tell you they will pay you, not what they offered in the letter, but a tiny fraction of what they offered. If you don’t take it, you are stuck with the deed filed in the deed records that shows you sold your mineral interest to them. In many cases, I’ve had clients have to sue the company to force them to cancel the deed. Even if the company cannot be found or has gone out of business, you will still probably have to file a lawsuit to get a court order cancelling the filed deed. Given the expense of litigation, this can be a huge burden.
  2. One way to tell if a company is a legitimate concern or not is to tell them that you might be interested in selling your minerals but your requirements are: 1) they need to send you a written      contract of sale with a specific price and an earnest money deposit; 2) the deed will be prepared by your attorney; 3) the transaction will be closed in a title company or through your attorney; and 4) they will be required to deposit the balance of the purchase price in good funds with the title company before they receive the deed. Most of these companies will tell you that is an unnecessary expense, or “they don’t do it that way”. This is a huge red flag. However, in my experience, even some of the scam artists will agree to this, but once you have paid your attorney to draft the deed and it’s time for them to put the purchase price in escrow, they will disappear or pull out.