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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.