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Our Shale Energy Law Blog provides timely legal and business information on issues impacting the energy industry and specifically natural gas development, as well as articles published by the attorneys of Babst Calland.




Ohio Supreme Court does not Recognize Implied Covenant to Further Explore

The Supreme Court of Ohio recently ruled in Alford v. Collins-McGregor Operating Company, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-8, that Ohio does not recognize an implied covenant to further explore, separate and apart from the implied covenant of reasonable development. Under Ohio law, the implied covenant of reasonable development requires a lessee to drill and operate such number of wells as would be reasonably necessary to develop the leasehold premises in a proven formation. While other jurisdictions recognize a separate implied covenant of further exploration, which requires a lessee to additionally explore potentially productive formations that are yet to be proven, the Supreme Court of Ohio refused to impose such requirement on lessees.

The Alford oil and gas lease was held by production and did not disclaim the application of any implied covenants. The lessee drilled one shallow well pursuant to the lease, which had produced in paying quantities ever since. The lessee never drilled any additional wells or sought production from any additional depths. Because the lessee declined to explore deeper depths, the Plaintiff landowners alleged that the lessee breached the implied covenant of reasonable development and the implied covenant to explore further, and sought a partial forfeiture of the lease as to deeper formations.

Affirming the Fourth Appellate District’s decision, the Ohio Supreme Court held that the implied covenant of reasonable development sufficiently protects the landowner’s interest in the exploration of deep formations. The court discussed that the implied covenant of reasonable development requires the lessee to act as a reasonably prudent operator would in developing an oil and gas lease. It requires the lessee to take into account the interests of both the lessor and lessee and to consider all of the circumstances relevant to the exploration and development of the land, including the associated risks, costs and profit. Conversely, the court observed that the implied covenant of further exploration only focuses on a small subset of factors relevant to the overall development of a lease, namely the lessor’s interest in obtaining additional compensation, and ignores the profit motive of a reasonably prudent operator.

The court held that the comprehensive scope of the implied covenant of reasonable development subsumes the implied covenant to further explore. The implied covenant of reasonable development is well suited to address the landowner’s interests in the further exploration of deeper formations because it takes into consideration all of the factors relevant to the exploration and development of a leased property. The court noted that it would be “unhelpful at best” to recognize a separate implied covenant to explore further, but expressed no opinion whether a prudent operator has a duty to develop deep rights under the implied covenant of reasonable development.

Tagged:  Gas drilling, Land and Leasing, Litigation, Natural gas, Ohio, Oil and gas, Oil and gas drilling

Oil and Gas Severance Tax Bill Fails to Reach House Floor

Pennsylvania House Bill No. 1401, which would create a severance tax and significantly change oil and gas royalty payments, recently failed to pass an important legislative hurdle.

The bill imposes a 3.2% severance tax, or drilling tax, on unconventional natural gas extraction. This tax would be in addition to the Act 13 impact fees already levied upon natural gas producers. According to drafters of the bill, the severance tax and the impact fees would equal approximately 5% of the value of natural gas sold in Pennsylvania. Additionally, the bill would alter the required minimum royalty payment under and oil and gas leases so that the lessor would not receive less than 12.5% of the gross proceeds received by the lessee on production under the lease. Under the terms of the bill, a deduction or allocation of costs, expenses or other adjustments could not be deducted from the gross proceeds before calculating the amount of royalty due to the lessor. This provision would severely limit, and at times eliminate, an operator’s ability to deduct pro-rata post-production costs from royalty payments.

Late Tuesday night, supporters of House Bill No. 1401 failed to acquire the necessary votes to push the bill to the House floor so that debate on the legislation could resume. The motion, which required 101 votes to succeed, instead received 100 votes in favor. The bill has been subject to numerous amendments which has stalled its progress.

Although this represents a setback for the bill, it is possible that further legislative action may be taken to pass it. At this point, however, it now appears that passage will be more difficult.  

Tagged:  Legislation, Natural gas, Oil and gas, Pennsylvania, Severance tax, post-production costs, royalty payment

Environmental Alert: Air Permitting Documents for Oil and Gas Industry Released by DEP

On November 30, 2017, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced the details of highly-anticipated changes to its air permitting program for the oil and gas industry. The Department released in final draft form two air program general permits, “GP-5” and “GP-5A,” as well as a permit exemption known as “Exemption 38.”  Plans to revise the air permitting framework were first announced in January 2016 as part of Governor Tom Wolf’s Methane Reduction Strategy for Pennsylvania. The recently updated permits and exemption are not yet in effect or legally binding, which means there may still be an opportunity to influence these critical air permitting documents. To read more:  click here.

Tagged:  AQTAC, DEP, VOC emissions, air permitting

New PHMSA administrator confronts outstanding pipeline safety rulemaking proceedings

Howard R. Elliott was officially sworn in on October 30 as the new administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Administrator Elliott, who spent four decades in the freight rail industry and received a lifetime achievement award from the Association of American Railroads for hazardous materials transportation safety, is well positioned to lead the federal agency that administers the nation’s hazardous materials transportation safety program. However, his tenure is likely to be defined, at least in the near term, by how he handles two significant pipeline safety rulemaking proceedings that PHMSA initiated during the previous administration. Click here to read this article from the November issue of The PIOGA Press.

Tagged:  API, GPAC, HCAs, LPAC, NPRM, OFR, OMB, PHMSA, Pipeline Safety Act, integrity management, pipeline safety regulations, pipelines

Environmental Alert: The Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board’s Second Analysis of the Environmental Rights Amendment

On November 13, 2017, the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board issued its second opinion analyzing Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, commonly known as the Environmental Rights Amendment, in light of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s June 20, 2017 decision in Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation v. Commonwealth (PEDF).  In Friends of Lackawanna v. DEP and Keystone Sanitary Landfill, EHB Dkt. No. 2015-063-L (November 10, 2017) the EHB applied the principles set out in PEDF and upheld a landfill permit renewal. Read more.

Tagged:  DEP, EHB, ERA, Environmental Hearing Board, Environmental Rights Amendment, Environmental law, Marcellus Shale, Natural gas, Oil and gas

Environmental Alert: The DEP Releases a Trio of Draft Technical Guidance Documents

On October 14, 2017, the DEP published notices of availability for a trio of draft Technical Guidance Documents (TGD) in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. Each of these TGDs proposes policy departures from current practices in both the form and substance of the respective TGD. Two of them, Policy for the Development and Publication of Technical Guidance and Policy for the Development and Review of Regulations, are significantly less detailed than their predecessor TGDs. For instance, the draft TGDs omit internal procedural steps and checkpoints involved in the DEP’s promulgation of new technical guidance documents and regulations. The revisions, if finalized, will affect those regulated and public entities who routinely participate in the DEP’s TGD and regulatory development process. Read more.

Tagged:  DEP, Environmental law, Natural gas, Oil and gas, Pennsylvania

Deduction of Post-Production Expenses from Royalty Payments in Ohio

A federal court recently addressed two contentious issues affecting calculation of royalty payments from production of shale gas in Ohio: (1) whether operators may deduct post-production expenses (costs for gathering, compression, treatment, processing, transportation, and dehydration) when calculating royalty payments; and (2) whether operators are required to pay royalties on all gas extracted at the wellhead – including gas that is lost between the wellhead and the point of sale (i.e. “line loss” gas). Lutz v. Chesapeake Appalachia, L.L.C, No. 4:09-cv-2256, Dkt. 142 (N.D. Ohio, Oct. 25, 2017) (Judge Sara Lioi). For more information, read our Legal Perspective.

Tagged:  Ohio, lessors, operators, post-production expenses, royalty payment

The 2017 Babst Calland Report Focuses on the Resurgence of the Appalachian Shale Gas Industry

On June 20, 2017, Babst Calland released its seventh annual energy industry report entitled The 2017 Babst Calland Report – Upstream, Midstream and Downstream: Resurgence of the Appalachian Shale Industry; Legal and Regulatory Perspective for Producers and Midstream OperatorsThis annual review of shale gas development activity acknowledges the continuing evolution of this industry in the face of economic, regulatory, legal and local government challenges. To request a copy of the Report, contact info@babstcalland.com.

In this Report, Babst Calland attorneys provide perspective on issues, challenges, opportunities and recent developments in the Appalachian Basin and beyond relevant to producers and operators.

In general, the oil and gas industry has rebounded during the past year through efficiency measures, consolidation and a resurgence of business opportunities related to shale gas development and its impact on upstream, midstream and downstream industries. As a result, many new opportunities and approaches to regulation, asset optimization and infrastructure are underway. Increased spending during the past year has led to a significantly higher rig count in the Appalachian Basin enabling growth in the domestic production of oil and gas as other shale plays across the country experience reductions.

The shale gas industry continues to provide the tri-state region with significant economic opportunities through employment and related revenue from the development of well sites, building of pipelines necessary to transport gas to market, and new downstream opportunities being created for manufacturing industries due to the volume of natural gas and natural gas liquids produced in the Appalachian Basin. Shell’s progress from a year ago to construct an ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania represents just one example of the expanding downstream market for natural gas. Many other manufacturing firms are expected to enter the region and establish businesses drawn by the energy and raw materials associated with natural gas and natural gas liquids from the Marcellus and Utica shales.

The Report also highlights changes that have occurred during the past year in the political landscape that are expected to affect the energy industry. The Trump administration is signaling a fundamental shift in the energy policies established by the Obama administration. New executive orders and policies have been issued that promise to lead to more pipeline development, reduced federal oversight of the oil and gas industry and increased access to oil and natural gas reserves.

Joseph K. Reinhart, shareholder and co-chair of Babst Calland’s Energy and Natural Resources Group, said, “This Report provides perspective on the challenges and opportunities of a resurging shale gas industry in the Appalachian Basin, including: the divergence of federal and state policy that creates more uncertainty for industry; increased special interest opposition groups on new issues and forums despite their lack of success in the courts; and the expansion from drilling to midstream development and now to downstream manufacturing that demonstrates the emergence of a more diverse energy economy.”

The 74-page Report contains six sections, highlighted below, each addressing key challenges for oil and gas producers and midstream operators.

  • Business Issues: Adapting to the New Price Environment as natural gas producers continue to focus on reducing costs and improving efficiencies. Recently, the number of natural gas producers in the Appalachian Basin has contracted through select merger and acquisition activity. With efficiency of operations in mind, natural gas producers continue to focus on consolidating their activities geographically. The oil and gas industry faced significant financial stress over the past year, and 2016 will go down as one of the more dramatic years in the United States’ oil and gas history. In the 2016 calendar year, primarily due to low commodity prices, 70 North American oil and gas exploration and production companies filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • State and Federal Governments Remain Active in a Changing Regulatory Landscape as developments in the state environmental standards for enforcement, air, water and waste management in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, as well as anticipated initiatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), will continue to have an effect on production and midstream operations. Separately, the impact of the Trump administration on various federal regulatory initiatives from the Obama era promises to be significant. President Donald Trump’s March 28, 2017 Executive Order was directed towards the development of the country’s natural resources. The order, among other things, requires agencies to review regulations that may burden the development or use of domestic energy resources.
  • Pipeline Safety Legislative and Regulatory Developments Continue to Shape the Industry through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) pipeline safety program. It is unlikely that there will be a dramatic shift in PHMSA’s enforcement policy in 2017. “Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2016” (PIPES Act) was signed into law last year with a provision allowing PHMSA to issue emergency orders if an unsafe condition or practice constitutes, or is causing, an imminent hazard. These emergency orders can impose industry-wide operational restrictions, prohibitions, or safety measures without a prior hearing.
  • Litigation Trends including a number of alleged nuisance claims continue to travel through West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania courts. Materials discussing alleged health effects from unconventional natural gas development continue to be disseminated at a record pace by industry opposition groups. A casual review of the material could lead to the erroneous conclusion that air emissions have not been tested; this is not, however, the case. The air quality data collected by a variety of objective parties using established monitoring and testing protocols around shale development in northeastern U.S. over the last six years demonstrate that shale operations are safe.
  • Local Government Law and Regulations Continue to Spawn Debate and Legal Challenges which continue to increase throughout the Appalachian Basin. However, the industry has successfully challenged overly-restricted ordinances. In contrast to municipalities that have adopted ordinances that permit reasonable oil and gas development, some local governments continued in 2017 to test their regulatory authority by enacting strict regulations for uses ancillary to well site development. Operators impacted by these regulations likewise continued to push back on these local regulations that severely impede, if not entirely prohibit, development or operation.
  • Downstream Opportunities include exciting developments for production and midstream companies with new emerging markets for consumption of natural gas and natural gas liquids, such as power generation, export, and the petrochemical and related manufacturing industries. The U.S. petrochemical industry is undergoing tremendous growth, including the Northeast which is a prime target for more niche markets, and an opportunity to repurpose industrial assets for this regionalized growth.
As market conditions evolve for the oil and gas industry in the Appalachia Basin and throughout the United States, Babst Calland’s multidisciplinary team of energy attorneys continues to stay abreast of the many legal and regulatory challenges currently facing producers and midstream operators.

Tagged:  Gas drilling, Marcellus Shale, Natural gas, Ohio, Oil and gas, Pennsylvania, Utica Shale, West Virginia

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Reexamines the Environmental Rights Amendment

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected the long-standing test for analyzing claims brought under Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, commonly known as the Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA). In its June 20, 2017 decision in Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) v. Commonwealth, the Supreme Court set aside the test from Payne v. Kassab that has been used since 1973, and held that the Commonwealth’s oil and gas rights are “public natural resources” under the ERA and that any revenues derived from the sale of those resources must be held in trust and only expended to conserve and maintain public natural resources. The Supreme Court’s opinion in PEDF is an important step in the ongoing judicial re-examination of the ERA. However, the impact of the Court’s decision on environmental and land use issues beyond the relatively narrow facts of this case remains unclear. For more information, read our Administrative Watch.  

Tagged:  Act 13, DCNR, Environmental Rights Amendment, Land use, Lease Fund, Royalties

Oil and Gas Lease Did Not Terminate for Failure to Pay Minimum Rental/Royalty Payments

On June 1, 2017, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a provision in an oil and gas lease requiring the lessee to pay a minimum rental/royalty does not automatically invoke a termination provision in an unrelated delay rental clause and is not void as against public policy.

In Bohlen v. Anadarko E&P Onshore, L.L.C., Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-4025, the Ohio Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a lessor can terminate an oil and gas lease if the lessee fails to pay minimum rental/royalty payments. In Bohlen, the oil and gas lease contained a primary term of one year along with standard secondary term language. The lease allowed the lessee to pay a delay rental for the privilege of deferring the commencement of a well. If this delay rental was not paid, then the lease would terminate. The Addendum attached to the lease stipulated that if royalty payments due to the lessor under the lease were less than $5,500, then lessee would pay any shortfall between the royalty payments and the $5,500. This minimum rental/royalty clause did not contain a termination provision. Lessee drilled two wells during the primary term of the lease but ultimately failed to pay yearly royalty amounts equal to or greater than $5,500. Lessors argued that the failure to pay a minimum rental/royalty triggered the termination clause found within the delay rental provision.

In Bohlen, the Court reasoned that the delay rental clause and the minimum annual-rental/royalty clause were two distinct clauses. Therefore, since the minimum rental/royalty clause did not contain termination language, the failure to pay the minimum royalty would not trigger the termination of the lease. It was of no consequence that the lease contained termination language in the delay rental clause since the two clauses at issue were to be read separately. Whether the lessee needed to compensate the lessor for underpayment was not at issue in the case.

Additionally, since the lease at issue contained a primary term, it did not violate public policy for being an indefinite lease.

Tagged:  Land and Leasing, Ohio, Oil and gas