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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.

 


 

 

Alert: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Reverses Approval of Oil and Gas Well on Narrow Grounds

In Gorsline, Court Declines to Rule on Broader Issue of Compatibility With Uses in Residential and Agricultural Zoning Districts, but Suggests that Municipalities May Permit Unconventional Natural Gas Drilling in any and all Zoning Districts The Pennsylvania Supreme Court published its long-awaited opinion in Gorsline v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfield Township on June 1, 2018.  Although the majority reversed the Commonwealth Court’s decision affirming the granting of a conditional use for an unconventional natural gas well pad, it did so in a narrow holding, finding that Inflection Energy, LLC (Inflection) did not present enough evidence before the Fairfield Township (Township) Board of Supervisors (Board) establishing that its proposed unconventional gas well pad was similar to other uses allowed in the Township’s  Residential-Agricultural Zoning District (R-A District).  Unlike most zoning ordinances, the Township’s zoning ordinance did not specifically authorize oil and gas wells.  Instead, Inflection had relied upon a “savings clause,” which allowed uses “similar to” the other uses specifically allowed in the R-A District. Despite headlines and press releases touting the Gorsline decision as a wholesale rejection of oil and gas development in residential and agricultural zoning districts, its ruling was much more limited.  In fact, language in both the Gorsline majority and dissenting opinions largely rejects the post-Robinson Township assertion of many shale gas opponents that natural gas wells must be relegated to industrial zoning districts and are fundamentally incompatible with residential or agricultural zoning districts. Please read more about the decision in this alert.

Tagged:  Gorsline, Robinson Township, conditional use permit, savings clause, well pad, zoning


Alert: Second Circuit Affirms Gathering Agreements can be Rejected in Bankruptcy

On May 25, 2018, in In re: Sabine Oil & Gas Corporation, 2018 WL 2386902 (2d. Cir. May 25, 2018), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed that a bankrupt energy and production company could reject its gas gathering agreements with a midstream company under Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code because the gas gathering agreements did not create or involve an interest in real property.  Please read more about the decision in this alert.

Tagged:  Bankruptcy Code, gathering agreements, horizontal privity, real property


Environmental Alert: Fourth Circuit’s “Conduit Theory” Decision Extends CWA Liability for Migrating Groundwater

On April 12, 2018, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals became the second federal appellate court to recognize the so-called groundwater “conduit theory” of liability under the Clean Water Act. The decision in Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P., No. 17-1640, has broad implications for many industries. Please read more about the decision in this alert.

Tagged:  Clean Water Act, Environmental law, Groundwater, conduit theory


Governor Justice Signs Bill Prohibiting Deduction of Post-Production Costs from Converted Flat-Rate Leases

Governor Jim Justice signed Senate Bill 360 relating to payment of royalties pursuant to flat-rate oil and gas leases on Friday, March 9, 2018. The law is effective on May 31, 2018. Previously, West Virginia law prohibited the issuance of permits for new wells or reworked wells on flat-rate leases unless the owner of the working interest agreed to pay the owner of the oil or gas a set royalty of at least one eighth of the proceeds “at the wellhead.” The Supreme Court of Appeals recently interpreted the statute as allowing the operator to deduct post-production expense when computing royalty. The bill now requires that owners of oil or gas receive not less than one eighth of the gross proceeds, free from any deductions for post-production expenses, received at the first point of sale to an unaffiliated third-party purchaser in an arm’s length transaction.

Tagged:  Legislation, Regulation, West Virginia


Employment & Labor Alert: Wage Hour Division Announces PAID Program to Assist with FLSA Compliance

On March 6, 2018, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor (WHD) announced a new pilot program, the Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program, which is intended to encourage employers to identify and correct potentially non-compliant practices.

According to DOL’s Q&A page on the PAID program (https://www.dol.gov/whd/PAID/#4) “The PAID program provides a framework for proactive resolution of potential overtime and minimum wage violations under the FLSA. The program’s primary objectives are to resolve such claims expeditiously and without litigation, to improve employers’ compliance with overtime and minimum wage obligations, and to ensure that more employees receive the back wages they are owed—faster.”  To read more: click here.

Tagged:  Marcellus Shale, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Regulation, Utica Shale, West Virginia


Co-Tenancy Bill Signed by Governor Jim Justice

On Friday, March 9, 2018, Governor Jim Justice signed West Virginia Senate  HB 4268, known as the “Cotenancy Modernization and Majority Protection Act” into law, effective July 1, 2018.  As discussed in our post from last week, the passage of this legislation is the culmination of years of negotiations and compromise between West Virginia elected officials, the industry, landowners and mineral owners.  The bill is designed to streamline the oil and gas leasing process and facilitate further development without unnecessary delay, by carving out an exception to the West Virginia statute governing waste between certain co-tenants (individuals that all own undivided interests in the same tract of land). Under the existing law (W. Va. Code § 37-7-2) development of oil and gas from a tract of land without the consent of all the owners, or co-tenants, of the same will result in waste, with any party committing such waste being subject to their operations being enjoined and/or treble damages.  The new law states that development of oil and gas under certain conditions will not constitute waste. The bill states that any tract held by seven or more co-tenants can be developed upon the consent of 75% of such co-tenants.  However, the proposed operator must make reasonable efforts to negotiate leases with all of the oil and gas owners before they can find protection under the proposed new law. Non-consenting co-tenants can either accept royalties equal to the highest percentage royalties paid to one of the consenting parties, proportionally reduced to their respective fractional interest, or elect to participate in the development and bear equal development and other costs with the lessee.  Unknown or unlocatable owners will be limited to receiving royalties equal to the highest percentage royalties paid to one of the consenting parties.  The statute also allows surface owners to reclaim the oil and gas title held by any unknown or unlocatable owners after seven years. The bill strikes a delicate balance between all stakeholders by protecting land and minerals owners while updating the law for the horizontal drilling era.

Tagged:  Gas drilling, Land and Leasing, Legislation, West Virginia


WV Senate and House Pass Co-Tenancy Bill, Awaits Governor’s Signature

Today, the West Virginia Senate passed HB 4268, popularly known as the "co-tenancy" bill.  Formally titled as the Co-tenancy Modernization and Majority Protection Act, the bill was designed to streamline the oil and gas leasing process and facilitate further development without unnecessary delay.  The bill passed the House of Delegates on February 15, 2018. If accepted by the governor, HB 4268 would carve out an exception to the West Virginia statute governing waste between certain co-tenants (individuals that all own an undivided interests in the same tract of land).  Under the existing law (W. Va. Code § 37-7-2) development of oil and gas from a tract of land without the consent of all the owners, or co-tenants, of the same will result in waste, with any party committing such waste being subject to their operations being enjoined and/or treble damages.  The new law states that development of oil and gas under certain conditions will not constitute waste. Upon final passage of the bill, any tract held by seven or more co-tenants can be developed upon the consent of 75% of such co-tenants.  However, the proposed operator must make reasonable efforts to negotiate leases with all of the oil and gas owners before they can find protection under the proposed new law.  Non-consenting co-tenants can either accept royalties equal to 12.5% of the oil or gas produced, proportionally reduced to their respective fractional interest, or elect to participate in the development and bear equal development and other costs with the lessee.  Unknown or unlocatable owners will be limited to receiving the 12.5% royalty.  The statute also allows surface owners to reclaim the oil and gas title held by any unknown or unlocatable owners after seven years. Governor Justice of West Virginia said earlier this week that he would veto the co-tenancy bill if it found his desk, but has purportedly changed his mind.  The bill must obtain the concurrence of the West Virginia House of Delegates before being sent to the Governor’s desk.

Tagged:  Land and Leasing, Legislation, West Virginia


Challenge to Constitutionality of Ohio’s Forced Pooling Statute Rejected on Procedural Grounds

The Ohio Supreme Court recently rejected a constitutional challenge to Ohio’s forced pooling statute in State ex rel. Kerns v. Simmers, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-256. A group of landowners (the “Landowners”) sought a writ of mandamus compelling the Chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) to commence appropriation proceedings to compensate landowners with interests included in an oil and gas drilling unit through a unitization order. The Landowners alleged that the Chief’s order issued pursuant to R.C. 1509.28 was “unlawful or unreasonable” and constituted an unconstitutional taking of their property without compensation. Under R.C. 1509.36, the Landowners appealed the Chief’s order to the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission (the “Commission”). The Commission, concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to determine the constitutionality of the order, dismissed the appeal. Instead of appealing the Commission’s decision to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas within 30 days as permitted by R.C. 1509.37, the Landowners filed a petition for a writ of mandamus to the Ohio Supreme Court. The Ohio Supreme Court denied the writ and dismissed the Landowners’ case, reasoning that the Landowners failed to utilize the adequate legal remedy available. To be entitled to a writ of mandamus, the Landowners needed to show (1) that they had a clear legal right to appropriation proceedings, (2) that the ODNR had a clear legal duty to commence the proceedings, and (3) that the Landowners had no plain and adequate legal remedy. Under R.C. 1509.37, the Landowners could have appealed the Commission’s decision to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas to determine the constitutionality of the unitization statute. In denying the writ, the court determined that the Landowners had a complete, beneficial and speedy remedy at law by way of an appeal to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas as provided in R.C. Chapter 1509 and should have pursued their appeal there. While dismissing this challenge on procedural grounds, it appears inevitable that the Ohio Supreme Court will ultimately have to determine the constitutionality of Ohio’s forced pooling statute.

Tagged:  Forced Pooling, Gas drilling, Litigation, Natural gas, Ohio, Oil and gas, Oil and gas drilling, Regulation, Unitization


Pennsylvania Superior Court Upholds “Title Washing”

In Woodhouse Hunting Club, Inc. v. Hoyt, an unpublished opinion filed February 2, 2018, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the practice of “title washing” of unseated land in Pennsylvania. Prior to January 1, 1948, title washing occurred through a tax sale of unseated land from which oil, gas and/or minerals (the “subsurface estate”) had been previously severed. If the subsurface estate had not been separately assessed, the tax sale of the unseated land would extinguish the prior severance and vest the tax sale purchaser with full ownership in the surface and subsurface estates. If the oil and gas had been separately assessed, then the tax sale of the surface would have no effect on the subsurface estate. After January 1, 1948, mineral estates were no longer separately assessed from the surface in Pennsylvania and title washing could no longer occur. In 2016, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the practice of “title washing” of unseated or unimproved land in Pennsylvania. Herder Spring Hunting Club v. Keller, 143 A.3d 358 (Pa. 2016).

Prior to the Superior Court ruling, the trial court had quieted title in favor of Woodhouse Hunting Club, Inc. based upon the Club’s argument that Hoyt did not own subsurface mineral rights due to a 1902 title wash. In issuing its ruling in Hoyt, the Superior Court noted that the Herder Spring decision addressed and disposed of all of Hoyt’s issues in the case. Therefore, the Superior Court relied on the holding in Herder Spring in affirming the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment and quiet title in favor of Woodhouse Hunting Club, Inc.

Tagged:  Energy law, Environmental law, Fracking, Litigation, Oil and gas, Pennsylvania


Environmental Legal Perspective: The Underground Reach of the Clean Water Act: It’s Not Just for Surface Water

Since its enactment in 1972, the federal agencies who administer the Clean Water Act (the Act), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps), have taken the position that the definition of “waters of the United States” governed by the Act (also known as “jurisdictional waters”) does not include groundwater. Regulation of groundwater therefore falls outside the scope of the Act. To read more: click here.

Tagged:  Clean Water Act, Clean Water Rule, EPA, Environmental law, Oil and gas, Regulatory, Waters of the US