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Earlier this week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) sued Chris Faulkner, his company, Breitling Energy Corporation and several other parties for defrauding investors. The complaint filed by the SEC can be reviewed here. The SEC Complaint alleges that the Defendants intentionally and repeatedly misled purchasers of working interests regarding Faulkner’s  experience in the oil and gas industry, the nature of the investment, and the estimated cost to drill and complete the intended wells.

A working interest, unlike a royalty interest, is a type of mineral interest that bears a proportionate share of all exploration, drilling and completion expenses. Thus, an accurate estimate of the potential costs is critical information for an investor considering the purchase of a working interest. If costs are inflated over actual costs and the operator pockets the difference, obviously that’s a problem.

Whether Faulkner and the other Defendants are adjudged guilty of these allegation remains to be seen, of course. However, these kinds of claims emphasize the need to have an experienced oil and gas attorney examine and evaluate any potential oil and gas investment before you invest. An experienced oil and gas attorney will review your goals for the investment, discuss the suitability of the investment with you, review and analyze all offering circulars, contracts and other documents, and possibly most important, conduct due diligence background research on the company with whom you are investing.

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In a case that many Texas landowners have been following closely through the courts, the Texas Supreme Court recently published a decision concerning whether a county can be held liable for an impermissible taking of property when the county allows for land development that the county knows will cause substantial flooding to nearby properties and fails to take steps to mitigate or control that flooding.

The Texas Supreme Court Opinion


Harris County Flood District and Harris County v. Kerr et al.   involved nearly four hundred homes in the upper White Oak Bayou watershed in Harris County, Texas that were flooded when severe storms passed through the area. The homeowners sued the county and the Harris County Flood Control District based on an inverse condemnation claim. The homeowners asserted that the county and the district did not take steps to control flooding as new developments were created in the White Oak Bayou. A flood control plan was actually developed in the 1980’s, but was never fully implemented by the county, and this plan acknowledged that the unmitigated development of the land in the Bayou would produce serious flooding problems in the area. As a result of a boom in development in the White Oak Bayou, and because of the the county’s failure to adequately control flooding, many homes were flooded. The Plaintiff homeowners claimed that the flooding was a unconstitutional taking of their property that is prohibited by Article I, Section 17 of the Texas Constitution. The evidence showed that the county never intended to cause flood damage to the homeowner’s properties, but that the county knoew that flooding could result.

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The Texas Supreme Court recently decided an important eminent domain case in In Re Lazy W District No. 1, Relator. Specifically, the Court decided that the trial court must consider whether the court has jurisdiction over a proceeding as quickly as possible in a case, and need not wait on the outcome of a special commissioners proceeding before hearing the jurisdictional issues.

The Mechanics of Eminent Domain

When a government entity such as a city, municipality or water district is interested in exercising its power of eminent domain over a parcel of land, the Texas eminent domain statutes require they follow several steps:

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You wouldn’t think that building a stock pond on your own property would be something that requires the approval of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would you? One unsuspecting family in Wyoming found out just how far the EPA was willing to go in an effort to “protect the environment.” According to a recent article by FoxNews, the Johnson family, in Fort Bridger, Wyoming, built a small stock pond on their farm in order to support their small herd of livestock. The Johnson’s obtained state and local permits for the pond. After the pond was built, the EPA sent the family threatening letters and slapped them with a fine of more than sixteen million dollars, (i.e., $37,500 per day from the time the pond was built), for not having obtained permission from the EPA to build the pond on the their property. The EPA even demanded the stock pond be deconstructed.

Allegations of a Violation of the Clean Water Act

The EPA claimed it had authority to issue the fine because the Johnson’s pond is fed by a natural stream, and under the federal Clean Water Act, the EPA believed that the Johnson family should have obtained federal approval to build the pond and should have gotten a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to the EPA, the Johnson pond was build by creating a dam on a creek and the act of building a dam on a natural waterway requires an Army Corps permit. The EPA also claimed that material from the Johnson’s pond was washing into other waterways. No other environmental problems with the pond were identified by the EPA.

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Most Texas landlords realize that when they rent to a tenant with a criminal history, the landlord may be held liable for criminal acts committed by that tenant. Texas Property Code Section 92.025 provides that a tenant cannot sue a landlord solely for leasing to a tenant convicted of, arrested for or placed on deferred adjudication for an offense. However, this law goes on to say that it does not preclude a suit for negligence against the landlord if: 1) the landlord leases to a tenant who has been convicted of murder, capital murder, indecency with a child, aggravated sexual assault and certain other listed offenses; and 2) the landlord knew or should have known of the conviction.

That’s pretty clear. However, now the federal government steps in. Even though a criminal record is not a protected status (like race, gender, religion, etc.) under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Fair Housing Act, that has not prevented the Office of General Counsel for HUD from issuing “Guidance” on the application of the Fair Housing Act to prospective tenants with criminal records. The Guidance (what a misnomer) indicates that a landlord who conducts a background check of a prospective tenant and refuses to lease to that tenant on the basis of the prospective tenant’s criminal record may leave that landlord open to complaints of discrimination by prospective tenants with criminal records. Remember, HUD can institute enforcement proceedings on these complaints as well.

HUD’s position is a catch-22 for Texas landlords. On the one hand, if the landlord refuses to rent based on a prospective tenant’s criminal record, the landlord is open to complaints and possible enforcement proceedings by HUD. On the other hand, if the landlord rents to a tenant with a criminal record, the landlord can be liable to other tenants for the actions of the tenant with the criminal history. HUD recommends that landlords evaluate prospective tenants, including any criminal records, on a case-by-case basis. Now, what was a simple leasing decision, becomes a legal issue that should probably be reviewed by the landlord’s attorney. This increases the landlord’s costs, which will probably result in higher rents. Higher rents will push some of the poorest renters out of the price range for certain apartments.

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Fracing, or hydrofracturing, is a natural gas extraction technique by which a liquid solution (primarily made up of water) is pumped into the ground at high pressures to fracture rock formations. Fracturing the rock releases gas that is trapped inside the rock formation. The geological areas where natural gas is found, and thus where a majority of fracing occurs, is in shale.

By the way, folks in the oil and gas industry call it “fracing”. The mainstream media somehow started adding a “k”, but the correct term is still “fracing” (i.e., there is no “k” in hydraulic fracturing)

Fracing is actually an old technique and has been used for many decades. Once fracing was combined with horizontal drilling, however, oil and gas companies found they could extract far more natural gas, more efficiently, than before.

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The Texas Supreme Court recently granted a petition for review in the case of Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas LLC v. Texas Rice Land Partners. The review will focus on how the courts are to apply a test created by the Texas Supreme Court concerning when an entity may identify itself as a common carrier. Common carrier status is critical because it allows a pipeline company to use eminent domain power (i.e., condemnation) to acquire pipeline easements.

When Is A Pipeline a Common Carrier Line?

Texas Rice Land Partners owned a rice farm and cattle ranch in Jefferson County on the Texas Gulf coast and refused to let Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas LLC (“Denbury”) survey the property for a carbon dioxide pipeline in 2008. Relying on Texas law at the time, Denbury began eminent  domain proceedings so they could conduct the survey. Denbury had indicated that it was a “common carrier” on the Texas Railroad Commission’s T-4 form for pipeline permits. The Texas Railroad Commission does not examine or evaluate this designation, but takes it at face value. In fact, the filing of a T-4 with the Railroad Commission is not really a permitting process at all, but simply a registration of the pipeline for information purposes. The trial court held that Denbury was a common carrier and enjoined Texas Rice Land Partners from interfering with Denbury’s surveying activities on the land. The Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals opinion affirmed the decision of the trial court based on the probability that the pipeline would serve third parties at some point after construction by transporting gas for customers who will either retain ownership of their gas, or sell it to unaffiliated parties. The Texas Supreme Court issued an opinion in 2012 announced the “Texas Rice test”: “for a person intending to build a CO2 pipeline to qualify as a common carrier under the Texas Natural Resources Code, a reasonable probability (which the Court indicated in a footnote means more likely than not) must exist that the pipeline will at some point after construction serve the public by transporting gas for one or more customers who will either retain ownership of their gas or sell it to third parties other than the pipeline company”. The Texas Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court for application of the facts to the new “Texas Rice test”.

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There has been a new development in Texas law regarding notary seals and this development affects any document in Texas that has to be notarized. This includes deeds, wills, trusts, oil and gas leases and many other kinds of documents. In fact, any document that must be filed in the deed records is required to be notarized.

Earlier this year, Texas House Bill 1683 went into effect and required the Texas Secretary of State to assign a notary identification number for all notaries and required notaries’ seals to include that number. Unfortunately, the statute was unclear on whether the law only applied to notaries who were commissioned or recommissioned after January 1, 2016 or to all notaries. The Secretary of State took the position that the law only applied to notaries who were commissioned or recommissioned on or after January 1, 2016, and that existing notaries did not have to get new seals under the new rules but would have to obtain a new seal that is compliance with the new rules once their current commission expires. This meant that under the law some notaries would have seals that include their notary identification number while others would not until their commission expired and they request renewal of their commission.

There is case law in Texas that suggests that a notary seal that is not in compliance with the notary seal rules is not a valid seal, and that an invalid seal when contested or challenged is considered to be no seal at all. This could raise serious legal issues concerning wills, trusts, oil and gas leases and any real estate document where the notary used a seal without their identification number on it.

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Up until recently, to the frustration of the IRS, the cost basis for mineral interests and other assets for estate tax purposes did not have to be the same as the basis used for income tax purposes. In other words, the executor of an estate could use a lower value for the estate’s mineral interests in order to minimize the estate tax on those assets. Later, if a beneficiary of the estate sold those assets, the beneficiary could use a higher basis in order to minimize capital gain taxes. The value used by the executor created a presumption of the basis for income tax purposes, but the beneficiary selling that asset had the option to use a higher basis, so long as they could good provide the IRS with “clear and convincing evidence” that the value was actually higher.

Recently, the U.S. Congress enacted the Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act of 2015, which was signed into law July 31, 2015 and was effective immediately. One portion of this new law limits the beneficiary’s basis to the value used for estate tax purposes. In addition, executors of estates are now required to file information statements with the IRS regarding the basis used and also must provide beneficiaries information about the basis of assets they receive. This new reporting requirement applies to all estate tax returns filed after July 31, 2015 that were required to be filed but it does not apply to optional estate tax returns.

When the assets of the estate include mineral interests or royalty interests, it is important to obtain an accurate opinion of their value. If you are the executor of an estate and need valuation of the estate’s Texas mineral interests, please give our office a call. We will be glad to talk to you about preparing a valuation for you.

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The Texas Supreme Court recently addressed how a bequest in a will of a double fractional oil and gas interest should be interpreted in Hysaw v. Bretton et al  in an opinion entered on January 29, 2016. A double fraction occurs when an instrument expresses a royalty interest as the product of two fractions, such as “1/4 of the usual 1/8 royalty”. The problem with using a double fraction in a deed or a will is that it is not often clear whether the instrument has created a fixed or “fractional royalty”, or a floating “fraction of” royalty in situations where the lease provides for a royalty different than 1/8. Back in the day, royalties were almost always 1/8. However, these days royalties are usually not 1/8: they can range from 10% to 30% or more. So the question becomes whether the testator or grantor meant for the beneficiary or grantee to get 1/4 times 1/8, i.e., 1/32, no matter what the actual royalty is or whether the term “the usual 1/8” was meant as a stand-in figure to represent whatever the actual royalty is. For even a moderately producing oil or gas well, this difference can represent a lot of money over the life of the well. The dispute in this case was between the children’s heirs, some claiming the will intended a fractional interest of 1/32 royalty and others claiming that the will intended a floating fraction of 1/3 of whatever the royalty was.

Ethel Hysaw executed a will in 1947, dividing her three tracts among her three children. The fee simple distribution was as follows:

● Inez received 600 acres from a 1065 acre tract,