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SB 576: Revised Co-Tenancy and Lease Integration Legislation Introduced in West Virginia

On March 10, 2017, Senate Bill 576 (SB 576) was introduced in the West Virginia Senate to take the place of SB 244, which addressed the oil and natural gas industry’s effort to efficiently develop production of natural resources. Similar to SB 244, SB 576’s stated purpose is “to encourage the efficient and economic development of oil and gas resources[;]” however, it contains a number of provisions that differ from SB 244.

If signed into law, SB 576 would create a new code section, W. Va. Code §37B-1-1, et seq., titled the “Cotenancy and Lease Integration Act,” which, like SB 244, contains both “co-tenancy” and “lease integration” provisions.

SB 576 declares in proposed §37B-1-2 that West Virginia public policy includes both “the maximum recovery of oil and gas” and the “protect[ion] and enforce[ment of] the clear provision of contracts lawfully made.” This section also states that West Virginia public policy is to “safeguard, protect and enforce” both “the rights of surface owners” and “the correlative rights of operators and royalty owners in a pool of oil and gas to the end that each such operator and royalty owner may obtain his or her just and equitable share of production from that pool of oil and gas[.]”

Proposed section §37B-1-4 allows oil and gas production on a piece of property when “two thirds of the ownership interest in the oil and gas mineral property consent to a lawful use [i.e., production] of the mineral property[.]” By contrast, SB 244 only required that a “majority” of ownership interests agree to a “lawful use.”

In addition, SB 576 (like SB 244) states that payment of royalties will be on a pro rata basis, with payments for a mineral owner who cannot be located reserved by the producer.  Unlike SB 244, however, SB 576 would specifically allow surface owners to use W. Va. § 55-12A-1, et seq. (the unknown and missing landowners statute), to lay claim to the interests of the absent or missing owners.  Finally, and importantly, SB 576 would require that a mineral interest owner who opposes oil or natural gas development be paid royalties (1) “free of post-production expenses” and (2) “equal to his or her fractional share of the average royalty of his or her consenting cotenants[,]” but “in no event may the royalty be less than his or her fractional share of one-eight [12.5%].”

SB 576 adds proposed sections §37B-1-5 and -6, which would take the place of the “Joint Development” provision in SB 244. Under proposed §37B-1-5, “[w]here an operator or operators have the right to develop multiple contiguous oil and gas leases, the operator may develop these leases jointly by horizontal drilling unless the development is expressly prohibited by the terms of a lease or agreement.”  Importantly, an operator may only disturb the surface of property subject to this provision if it “has a surface use agreement” with the owner(s) of the property that will be disturbed.  As with SB 244, under proposed §37B-1-6, royalty payments are based upon “production [that] shall be allocated to each lease in the proportion that the net acreage of each lease bears to the total net acreage of the jointly developed tracts.”  As with dissenting owners under proposed §37B-1-4, however, “[i]n the absence of specific agreement to the contrary or where deductions are authorized by statute, the royalty for all royalty owners of the jointly developed acreage who do not have leases containing express pooling and unitization clauses shall not be reduced for post-production expenses incurred by the operator.”  This provision, however, is not “intended to impact royalties due for wells drilled prior to the effective date of this chapter.”

While SB 576 keeps the basic goals of SB 244 – development without the approval of all mineral interest owners and development of contiguous property through horizontal drilling – it contains a number of provisions designed to mollify the concerns of surface owner organizations and other property rights groups. The “co-tenancy” provision now requires a 2/3 majority of mineral ownership interests to permit development, and royalty payments to dissenting owners must not take post-production costs into account.  The “lease integration” provisions explicitly allow horizontal drilling of contiguous tracts that are each subject to production leases (provided horizontal drilling is not expressly prohibited), but if a production lease does not explicitly permit pooling or unitization, then royalty payments to the owners under that lease cannot be deducted for post-production costs.  Important to surface owners is the requirement that a surface use agreement be in place before the surface of any property is disturbed by joint development.

Babst Calland will follow SB 576 during West Virginia’s Legislative Session, which is scheduled to end on April 8, 2017.