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As many Texans are aware, hydraulic fracturing (“fracing”) uses a lot of water. In fact, one of the important ways in which Texas oil and gas lawyers assist their clients is to make sure that the oil and gas leases they sign contain appropriate protections for the client’s freshwater sources.

ConocoPhillips recently announced the availability of its “Water Visualization Tool” to use in discussing their water use with landowners in the Eagle Ford Shale. This is a 3D modeling tool that contains a model of the subsurface based on data from state and federal public databases, such as the US Geological Survey. With this tool, the oil company can demonstrate to a landowner the location and depth of the reservoir from which it is obtaining water and the spacing between horizontal wells and water sources.water-drop-1427344

The Water Visualization Tool sounds like it will assist in clear communication between oil companies and landowners. However, the more important issue is the need to continue to push to find non-freshwater sources for water used in fracing. For example, ConocoPhillips itself used municipal wastewater from Karnes City, Texas in the fracing of its wells in Karnes County. Other companies have used brackish water or are recycling water to use in fracking.

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Texas oil companies, mineral owners and oil and gas attorneys are all familiar with the Texas Railroad Commission. The Commission regulates oil and gas drilling and production and oil and gas pipelines in Texas. The Commission is pretty diligent in making sure abandoned wells are properly plugged. Unfortunately, on one occasion, they apparently plugged the wrong well!

The well was located on a tract owned and operated by American Coastal Energy. American Coastal Energy filed for bankruptcy. Gulf Energy held a lease on the area containing  the well and reached an agreement with the Commission to take over the well. In exchange, Gulf Energy provided $400,000 to cover the cost of eventually plugging the well if and when Gulf Energy decided to abandon the well. The Commission agreed to postpone plugging the well.

The Commission hired Superior Energy Services, LLC to plug other abandoned wells in the same tract as the Gulf Energy well. While plugging the other wells in the area, Superior Energy also plugged the Gulf Energy well, apparently at the specific instruction of the Commission staff. Due to a clerical error, someone at the Commission transposed the coordinates for the Gulf Energy well with another well.

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A new statute will provide new rights to co-tenant heirs and a new option for the Texas real estate attorneys assisting them. The Texas legislature recently passed and Governor Abbott signed  Section 16.0265 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code that provides assistance to heirs who have collectively inherited real estate from a common ancestor. In particular, it gives some additional rights to the heir or heirs who live on, use and pay taxes on the land to the exclusion of the other heirs. You can read the full text of the new law here.

This new statute applies to cotenant heirs, which the statute defines as one of two or more people who simultaneously acquire identical and undivided ownership interests in real property through intestate succession. Intestate succession means the passage of title to property according to the Texas Estates Code, which applies when someone dies without leaving a will or if someone has left will, but the will was not probated. This is a common situation, and is sometimes difficult to remedy short of filing a lawsuit.

Specifically, the new statute says that one or more cotenant heirs may acquire interests of the other heirs by adverse possession if, for a continuous and uninterrupted ten year period:

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Texas landowners and oil and gas attorneys have been watching Senate Bill 740 with interest. This bill, introduced by several Texas senators, would have increased landowner protections in the event a pipeline company sought to obtain an easement on their property using eminent domain. You can read the full text of the bill here.

The bill contains amendments to the “Bill of Rights” contained in the Texas Government Code and numerous amendments to the Texas Occupations Code dealing with right-of-way agents, but most importantly, it contains amendments to the Texas Property Code dealing with offers to land owners by pipeline companies seeking pipeline easements. Examples of the new provisions are:

  • a requirement pipeline company must provide any new, amended or updated appraisals to the property owner within a specific time
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There is a controversy between the Texas Railroad Commission and the US Army Corps of Engineers that is being followed closely by many Texas oil and gas attorneys and mineral owners. The Texas Railroad Commission is the state’s oil and gas regulator, and last year it bumped heads with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concerning whether the Corps has the authority to implement rules about where oil wells and injection wells can be drilled.  The dispute surrounds the Joe Pool Lake, located in Tarrant County, Dallas County and Ellis County, and specifically whether drilling and injecting should be permitted within a certain distance of the dam.

Injection Wells Linked to Increases in Seismic Activity

There have been claims asserted in some circles that fracing or the use of injection wells to dispose of waste water has been linked to an increase in seismic activity near drill sites. The Corp recently obtained a study concerning the impact induced seismic activity could have on the structural integrity of the Joe Pool Lake dam. The study concluded that with respect to production, a 5,000-foot standoff distance — which is slightly larger than the one set by the Army Corps — had little effect on subsidence, or caving and settling, at the dam. In fact, the study did not recommend any change in the current ban area. Somehow, despite the study’s conclusions, the Army Corps is concerned that drilling within four thousand feet of the Joe Pool Lake dam or hydraulic fracturing within five miles of the dam could increase the risk of man-made earthquakes in the area, which could in turn structurally damage the dam. (There is already a drilling ban in effect within three thousand feet of the dam). The expansion of the ban area would encompass land from the cities of Grand Prairie, Arlington and Dallas.joepool2

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The Texas Supreme Court recently delivered an opinion that was not surprising to Texas oil and gas attorneys in the case of Forest Oil Corporation v. El Rucio Land and Cattle Co. The Court originally denied the review of the Corpus Christi Appeals Court decision affirming a $15 million dollar arbitration award against Forest Oil Corporation (now Sabine Oil & Gas), however, after a motion for rehearing the Court granted the petition for review. The primary issue is who has jurisdiction of a landowner’s claim against an oil and gas company for the contamination of a landowner’s property.

Background

Forest Oil leased roughly 1500 acres from McAllen Ranch (owned by James McAllen) in the mid-1980’s, where it has been producing and processing natural gas. About a decade after the lease was signed, McAllen Ranch and Forest Oil entered into another agreement in which Forest agreed to remove and clean up any hazardous materials from the lease site. The parties agreed that any disputes would be resolved by arbitration rather than by going to court.

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The U S Geological Survey (USGS) just published a revised assessment of oil and gas reserves in the Sprayberry formation in the Permian Basin in Texas. In the revision, USGS estimates the formation holds 4.2 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 3.1 trillion cubic feet of gas. This represents a 700% increase over its prior assessment in 2007. The researchers at USGS said that as more wells are drilled in this region, the more data they have with which to calculate assessments and the better their ability to map and understand these formations. This assessment is the largest ever released by USGS and represents the largest oil and gas reserve in the lower 48 states.

The Sprayberry formation is one of seven formations in the Permian Basin area of Texas.   The Permian Basin is the largest petroleum-producing basin in the United States and has produced a cumulative 28.9 billion barrels of oil and 75 trillion cu ft. of gas. This news probably means more oil and gas wells will be drilled on existing leases, and that oil companies may be seeking new leases as well.

Hydrocarbon_Plays_within_the_Permian_Basin

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The Texas Railroad Commission regulates oil and gas production activities in Texas. The Commission has the authority to issue and suspend permits for production companies and Texas oil and gas lawyers can file complaints with the Commission on behalf of landowners who believe they have been harmed by a well’s operations. Periodically, an energy company’s drilling and wastewater injection permit will be challenged by landowners on the grounds that a well has caused earthquakes, and the Commission conducts hearings to review the evidence of whether the permit should be revoked. The issue of whether injection wells cause earthquakes has come before the Commission several times over the past few years.

The Commission’s investigations have consistently determined that the earthquake swarm activity experienced in Oklahoma and north Texas over the past few years has not been linked with any specific oil and natural gas drilling activity, and until the seismic activity can be linked to a specific producer’s drilling activity, wells should remain open and operational. While scientists at the United States Geological Survey and other research institutions have opined that there is a link, Texas oil and gas regulators have indicated that oil and natural gas production should not be terminated until there is definitive proof of a correlation between drilling/wastewater activity and earthquake activity.

Some of the specific incidents and findings by the Texas Railroad Commission are:

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A case that has gained attention in the Texas oil and gas industry is the case of Samson Exploration v. T.S. Reed Properties which is currently awaiting a decision by the Texas Supreme Court. The case involves three gas wells and two mistakenly overlapping pooling units in Hardin County, Texas.  The boundaries of the first unit were amended by the well operator, but the boundaries of the second unit were not. The two main issues, as stated by the Texas Ninth Court of Appeals, are : “First, whether the stakeholders participating in (the first unit) can recover damages from the operator of the unit when the operator amended the boundaries of the unit to exclude a well that was within the boundaries of the original unit, and where the stakeholders accepted royalties attributable to the amended unit without challenging the operator’s authority to amend the original unit’s boundaries. Second, whether the stakeholders in (the second unit), based on their claims for breach of contract, can recover damages from the operator due to the operator’s failure to pay royalties on oil and gas produced from a well that the operator contends was (originally)  included in that unit by mistake”.

In October 2015, the Texas Ninth Court of Appeals opinion ruled that the stakeholders in the first unit had ratified the amendment to the unit by accepting royalties attributable to the amended first unit. Therefore, those stakeholders should recover nothing. The Ninth Circuit further determined that the stakeholders in the second unit could recover damages from the well operator for the operator’s failure to file an amendment to the description defining the pooling unit’s boundaries, but that the award of damages in the trial court was excessive because it awarded royalties for prior to the time the unit existed.

Many in the Texas oil and gas industry, like Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, support Samson’s claim that the royalty owners in the first gas unit ratified the unit amendment by accepting royalties after the unit was amended, and that they should not be required to pay royalties from one well to lessors in both gas units.

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The Texas Court of Appeals in Houston recently decided a case, UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY v. AMERITON PROPERTIES INCORPORATED, that contains an important caveat for anyone preparing or interpreting a deed.

Background

Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway Company (GHSR), the predecessor to Union Pacific Railroad Company, acquired title to certain Texas land in 1879 after commencing a condemnation proceeding against the owner, Mary Lawrence. GHSR and Mrs. Lawrence agreed to settle the condemnation proceeding, and Mrs. Lawrence gave GHSR a deed in return for GHSR’s payment of $437 for a portionthe land.