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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.




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

Pennsylvania legislature attempts to inject new life into expired oil and gas leases

On October 30, Governor Tom Wolf signed House Bill 74, which amended the Pennsylvania Fiscal Code. The 90-page bill included Section 1610-E, entitled “Temporary Cessation of Oil and Gas Wells,” which codified certain rights of oil and gas lessors and lessees to extend leases during periods of temporary cessation of production. This article explores how traditional savings clauses found in leases and existing legal precedent may be impacted by Section 1610-E, and provides an analysis of potential challenges arising out of the application of this new law. Click here to read this article from the January issue of The PIOGA Press.

Tagged:  Land and Leasing, Legislation, Oil and gas, Pennsylvania, drilling, royalty payment

Environmental Alert: U.S. Supreme Court Decision Revives Multiple Federal District Court Lawsuits Challenging the Clean Water Rule

On January 22, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that lawsuits challenging the Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Water Rule (Rule) – a landmark revision to the definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) that arguably expanded the scope of the federal government’s authority under several regulatory programs, including those associated with wastewater discharges and dredge/fill activities under the Clean Water Act (CWA) – must be filed in federal district courts instead of the federal courts of appeal. Nat’l Assoc. of Mfrs. v. Dept. of Def., No. 16-299 (Jan. 22, 2018) (NAM). While the Supreme Court’s decision in NAM did not address the merits of the lawsuits challenging the Rule, it did determine the appropriate forum for those legal challenges. To read more: click here.

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

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