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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: DOT Sends Pipeline Safety Bill to Congress

On June 3, 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) sent a legislative proposal to Congress for reauthorization of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) pipeline safety program.  If enacted and signed into law, the legislation would reauthorize PHMSA’s pipeline safety program for an additional four years, or through 2023.

As in previous reauthorizations, the bill includes provisions that respond to recent events—in this case, the September 13, 2018 natural gas distribution incident in Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts.  Consistent with the Trump administration’s broader policy agenda, the bill also includes provisions to promote innovation by supporting new technologies and enhancing pipeline safety and reliability.

The legislation addresses other areas of concern to the pipeline industry, such as requiring more timely review of technical standards and imposing additional criminal sanctions for pipeline vandalism.  Finally, the bill includes rulemaking mandates that focus on items of importance to PHMSA—namely, expanding the operator qualification (OQ) program to pipeline construction and establishing regulations for inactive pipelines.

Please read more about this decision in this Alert.

Tagged:  DOT, PHMSA, Pipeline safety, operators


Alert: Trump Executive Order Puts Spotlight on DOT LNG Rules

On April 10, 2019, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order on Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth (Executive Order).  In addition to outlining U.S. policy toward private investment in energy infrastructure and directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take certain actions to improve the permitting process under the Clean Water Act, the Executive Order instructs the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to update the federal safety standards for liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities.  The Executive Order notes that DOT originally issued those safety standards nearly four decades ago and states that the current regulations are not appropriate for “modern, large-scale liquefaction facilities[.]”  Accordingly, the Executive Order directs DOT to finalize new LNG regulations within 13 months, or by no later than May 2020, an ambitious deadline given the complex issues involved and typical timeframe for completing the federal rulemaking process. Please read more about this decision in this Alert.

Tagged:  DOT, Executive Order, LNG, Pipeline, Transportation, exclusion zones


Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Allows Attorney General to Pursue UTPCPL Claims Against Oil and Gas Companies

On March 15, 2019, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in Anadarko Petroleum Corporation v. Commonwealth held that the Attorney General can bring claims under Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (“UTPCPL”) against companies that lease oil and gas rights from landowners.  The companies argued that the UTPCPL was “designed to only protect consumers against underhanded behavior of sellers, rather than all parties to a given transaction” and because they “were not selling or distributing anything” the UTPCPL was not applicable.  The Court rejected this argument and held that the UTPCPL’s definition of “trade” and “commerce” was broad enough to include claims against purchasers, as well as sellers.  The Court noted that the UTPCPL places restrictions on the ability of private citizens to file suit, but that those restrictions do not apply to the Attorney General.  The language of the UTPCPL quoted by the Court suggests that its holding does not open the door for private UTPCPL claims against oil and gas lessees.  The Court also addressed whether the UTPCPL supports antitrust claims.  The Court held that the UTPCPL “is not designed to render all antitrust violations actionable.”  The Court dismissed the Attorney General’s antitrust claim that was based on the premise that “joint venture and market sharing agreements intrinsically violate[] the UTPCPL.”  However, the Court held that the Attorney General did allege an actionable UTPCPL antitrust claim when it claimed that the companies were “giving [landowners] misleading information, and/or failing to disclose information, regarding the open market’s true appetite for subsurface mineral leases, as well as the whether the terms of the agreed-to leases ‘were competitive and fair.’”

Judge Covey issued a concurring and dissenting opinion, arguing that the “Majority manipulate[d] the language of the UTPCPL for a purpose the General Assembly never intended” – i.e. that the UTPCPL “a consumer protection statute intended to bolster consumers’ bargaining powers, can authorize legal action against a purchaser.”  Jude Covey concurred in the Majority’s dismissal of the Attorney General’s UTPCPL antitrust claim.  The case may be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Tagged:  joint venture, landowners, oil and gas rights


Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals Rules on Marketable Title Act and Dormant Mineral Act Claims

Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals recently issued three separate opinions involving Ohio’s Marketable Title Act (the “MTA”) and Dormant Mineral Act (the “DMA”): Miller v. Mellott, 2019-Ohio-504 (Ct. App.); Soucik v. Gulfport Energy Corp., 2019—Ohio-491 (Ct. App.); and Hickman v. Consolidation Coal Co., 2019-Ohio-492 (Ct. App.). Despite ruling that the severed royalty and/or fee interests were subject to both the MTA and the DMA, the Seventh District held that the mineral/royalty interests had not been abandoned and/or extinguished by either. In its MTA analysis, the court scrutinized the language of the root of title deed used by the surface owners to establish title to the severed interest. If the surface owner’s root of title contained a reference to an oil and gas reservation, the court found that the surface owner was precluded from claiming the mineral interest had been extinguished under the MTA. The court determined that even a perfunctory exception to oil and gas “as heretofore reserved” barred the surface owner from claiming title to the mineral interest under the MTA. Finding that the severed minerals survived extinguishment under the MTA, the court addressed underlying defects in the surface owner’s DMA procedure. In denying the surface owners’ claims under the DMA in Miller and Soucik, the court determined that the surface owners failed to satisfy the diligence required by Ohio law in identifying the mineral holders before permitting notice by publication. Even though the margins of the deeds severing the mineral interests contained notations of abandonment, the court permitted examination of the underlying procedure to determine whether abandonment was proper. Surface owners carry the burden to establish that they attempted service by certified mail prior to proceeding to notice by publication. Because the surface owners in Miller and Soucik failed to provide evidence through affidavits or otherwise that they even attempted to serve notice by certified mail, the court found that the surface owners failed to comply with the notice provisions of the DMA. Therefore, the court ruled that the severed mineral interests had not been abandoned under the DMA.

Tagged:  Dormant Mineral Act, Leasing, Litigation, Marketable Title Act, Ohio, Oil and gas, Title


Newly Amended Ohio Law Exempts Landmen From Real Estate Broker’s License Requirement

On Wednesday, December 19, 2018, Governor Kasich signed SB 263 into law, which amends O.R.C. §4735 to specifically exclude oil and gas land professionals (landmen) from having to be a licensed real estate broker to negotiate oil and gas leases in Ohio. Following the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in Dundics v. Eric Petroleum Corporation, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-3826 (September 25, 2018), independent oil and gas landmen faced civil and criminal penalties if they continued to negotiate oil and gas leases without first acquiring a real estate broker's license. With the passing of SB 263, which goes into effect on March 19, 2019, independent landmen may continue negotiating oil and gas leases without a real estate broker's license provided they follow the new disclosure requirements set forth in the amendment. The newly passed legislation specifically exempts landmen from acquiring a real estate license if the transaction involves negotiating an oil and gas lease or pipeline easement. However, the landman must first register annually with the superintendent of real estate and pay a $100 registration fee. Additionally, the landman must provide the superintendent with evidence that the landman is in good standing in a national, state, or local professional organization that has developed ethical performance standards for oil and gas land professionals. When negotiating an oil and gas lease, the landman must now provide the landowner with a disclosure form that discloses their registration information and notifies the landowner that the landman is not a licensed real estate broker. The exemption does not apply to fee simple absolute transactions involving oil and gas rights, which still require the landman to be a licensed real estate broker.

Tagged:  Legislation, Oil and gas, Title, landman, leases, real estate


Ohio Supreme Court Clarifies Details Required for Specific Reference Under the Marketable Title Act

On December 13, 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court in Blackstone v. Moore, 2018-Ohio-4959, affirmed the Seventh District Court of Appeals decision preserving a severed royalty interest from extinguishment under the Marketable Title Act (the “MTA”) because of a specific reference in the surface owners’ chain of title. The MTA allows an owner to rely on a record chain of title to establish ownership and operates to extinguish interests and claims existing prior to the root of title unless an exception applies. The root of title is the most recent instrument of record at least 40 years prior to the time marketability is being determined.  In addition to actively preserving their interest from extinguishment through their own actions, an interest may be preserved, even with no action by its owner, if specifically identified in the record chain of title of the individual attempting to extinguish the interest.

The Blackstones (surface owners) claimed that the royalty interest created in 1915 owned by the Moores had been extinguished by operation of law under the MTA. However, the Blackstones’ 1969 root of title referenced the outstanding oil and gas royalty interest by its owner’s name but failed to include a volume/page reference to the instrument that created the interest. The court rejected the Blackstones argument for a bright-line rule requiring the volume and page number, as the legislature did not require this specificity in the statute. Accordingly, the court determined that the Blackstones’ 1969 root of title specifically referenced the Moores’ interest, thereby preserving the Moores’ interest from extinguishment.

Justice DeGenaro, who is leaving the court at the end of 2018, wrote a concurring opinion emphasizing the narrow scope of the holding. She opined that the MTA no longer applies to severed mineral interests following the 1989 enactment of the Dormant Mineral Act (the “DMA”). While the issue of whether the MTA applies to severed mineral interests was not before the court in Blackstone, this issue is currently before the Seventh District Court of Appeals in a separate, unrelated case. The Seventh District had previously applied both the DMA and MTA to the Moores’ severed royalty interest when Blackstone was on appeal before them.

Tagged:  Dormant Mineral Act, Litigation, Marketable Title Act, Ohio, reference


Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals Rules on Dormant Mineral Act’s Requirement of Reasonable Due Diligence Prior To Notice by Publication

On November 26, 2018, Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals in Sharp v. Miller, 7th Dist. Jefferson No. 17 JE 0022, 2018-Ohio-4740, affirmed the abandonment of oil and gas interests pursuant to the Dormant Mineral Act (O.R.C. §5301.56) (the “DMA”). The issues before the court were: (i) whether the surface owners’ (the Millers) service of notice by publication to the mineral owners (the Sharps) properly complied with Section (E)(1) of the DMA; and (ii) whether the oil and gas leases executed by the Millers, prior to claiming the minerals under the DMA, constituted savings events for the Sharps. The court held in favor of the Millers on both issues confirming the abandonment of the Sharps’ oil and gas interests.

The Sharps alleged that they received insufficient notice of the surface owners’ intent to abandon the minerals, claiming that a reasonable search by the Millers would have revealed the identities and addresses of the Sharps, and thus required notice to be served by certified mail instead of by publication. In rejecting the Sharps’ argument that the Millers failed to exercise reasonable due diligence, the court used the failed results of the Sharps’ own search to establish that the Millers’ search was sufficient. In line with its recent decision Shilts v. Beardmore, 7th Dist. Monroe No. 16 MO 0003, 2018-Ohio-863, the Seventh District again declined to establish an objective bright-line rule for when notice by publication is permitted or to define “reasonable due diligence.” Instead, the court will continue to apply a subjective test and look to the facts and circumstances in each individual case to determine if the surface owners conducted a reasonable search in attempting to identify the mineral interest holders. Additionally, whether a surface owner’s search was reasonable may depend on the outcome of the mineral owner’s search using alternative resources, such as searching the records of adjacent counties, search engine inquires, and searching for heirs on subscription websites like ancestry.com.

In a matter of first impression, the court rejected the argument that oil and gas leases executed by the Millers, prior to claiming the minerals under the DMA, constituted savings events for the Sharps. While the Ohio Supreme Court has held that a recorded oil and gas lease is a title transaction (Chesapeake Exploration, L.L.C. v. Buell, 144 Ohio St.3d 490, 2015-Ohio-4551, 45 N.E.3d 185, ¶66), the Seventh District noted that the Millers did not own the minerals at the time of the lease. Therefore, the mineral interest was not the “subject of” the title transaction. As such, the leases did not constitute savings events under the DMA for the Sharps and did not preclude abandonment of the Sharps’ interest under the DMA.

The Sharps have until January 10, 2019 to appeal the Seventh District’s decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Tagged:  Dormant Mineral Act, Leasing, Litigation, Ohio, Oil and gas, Title, notice by publication


Alert: Commonwealth Court Upholds Validity of Ordinance Allowing Shale Gas Drilling in All Zoning Districts

Court Refuses to Adopt a “One Size Fits All” Approach that Would Prohibit Municipalities from Permitting Shale Drilling in Rural Residential and Agricultural Zoning Districts

On October 26, 2018, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court published an en banc opinion in Frederick v. Allegheny Township Zoning Hearing Board, et al., No. 2295 C.D. 2015, 2018 WL 5303462 (Pa. Cmwlth. Oct. 26, 2018) rejecting a challenge to the validity of the Allegheny Township, Westmoreland County (Township) zoning ordinance.  The Court addressed the contention of oil and gas industry opponents that an unconventional natural gas well pad can only be permitted in an industrial zoning district.  After reviewing the detailed record developed in the substantive validity challenge decided by the Township Zoning Hearing Board (Board) and addressing recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisions on shale gas drilling, the Court, in a 5-2 decision, rejected this “one size fits all” proposition.  It found that state law empowers municipalities to determine where well sites are appropriate and compatible with other land uses within their boundaries.

Please read more about this decision in this Alert.

Tagged:  Environmental Rights Amendment, Gorsline, PEDF, Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code, Robinson Township II, agricultural, industrial, municipalities, permit, rural, validity challenge, zoning


Ohio Supreme Court Holds that Independent Landmen Must Have Real Estate Brokers Licenses

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled in Dundics v. Eric Petroleum Corporation, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-3826 (September 25, 2018), that independent landmen (third parties who negotiate oil and gas leases on behalf of E&P companies) must be licensed real estate brokers. In Dundics, an independent landman, who was hired to obtain oil and gas leases for an E&P company in exchange for compensation and a future royalty interest in the leases, sued the E&P company to recover payment on several leases. However, the company moved to dismiss the case on the basis that the landman was not a licensed real estate broker and could not bring a cause of action to recover payment under O.R.C. § 4735.21.

In affirming the Seventh Appellate District’s decision to dismiss the landman’s claims, the Court concluded that the broad definition of “real estate” in O.R.C. § 4735.01(B) applies to oil and gas leases and that an independent landman is a “real estate broker” required to have a license under O.R.C. § 4735.02. The statute defines a “real estate broker” as including “any person, partnership, association, limited liability company, limited liability partnership, or corporation… who for another and who for a fee, commission, or other valuable consideration... does any of the following…,” which specifically includes the procuring of prospects or the negotiation of leases. See O.R.C. § 4734.01(A)(7). Although there are several exceptions from the definition of “real estate broker,” including one for attorneys, the Court found that the statute is unambiguous and there is no exception for independent landmen.

The Court did not address whether the decision applies to in-house landmen who directly negotiate oil and gas leases on behalf of their employer.  Although there is no such explicit exception in the statute, it is arguable that the definition of “real estate broker” itself exempts in-house landmen. Because the definition requires a person to be performing certain activities “for another” and an in-house landman is negotiating for his or her own company, it is possible that they may not be considered real estate brokers for purposes of the statute. The Court also did not discuss the potential liability of an unlicensed landman, who now could be exposed to both monetary and criminal penalties for practicing without a license. This may cause those in the industry to rethink their leasing practices.

The only way this decision could be overturned is if the Ohio General Assembly creates a statutory exception for landmen within the real estate licensure statute.

Tagged:  Oil and gas, landman, leases, real estate, royalty interest


Alert: Federal Court Enjoins West Virginia County from Using Zoning Laws to Interfere with Construction of Compressor Station

On August 29, 2018, the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order granting Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) summary judgment and permanently enjoining the County Commission of Fayette County, West Virginia, from using a zoning ordinance to bar construction of the Stallworth Compressor Station (CSS).  The CSS is a vital part of the 303.5-mile long, 42-inch diameter, MVP pipeline project stretching from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to Pittsylvania County, Virginia.  See Mountain Valley Pipeline v. Matthew D. Wender, et al., Case No. 2:17-cv-04377, Mem. Op. and Order (S.D. W. Va. August 29, 2018). Please read more about this decision in this Alert.

Tagged:  FERC, Natural gas, Pipeline, West Virginia, litgation, preemption, zoning