Ohio recently passed HB 166, effective October 17, 2019, amending Section §1509.28 of Ohio’s statutory unitization statute. The prior version of Section §1509.28 did not specify whether all mineral owners in a tract must be leased to be included in the accounting for the minimum 65% operator ownership interest, which is the threshold required in order to apply for statutory unitization. The Section also did not address whether an operator could count partial net-acreage interests in a tract. For example, under the prior version of Section §1509.28, if a 10 acre tract was owned jointly by five owners, two of which had leased their oil and gas interests, it was unclear whether the operator was required to represent the leased interest as only four net acres or whether the operator was required to represent the tract as wholly unleased until all owners in the tract had entered into oil and gas leases. The new amendment added the following clarification to the Code: “In calculating the sixty-five per cent, an owner’s entire interest in each tract in the proposed unit area, including any divided, undivided, partial, fee, or other interest in the tract, shall be included to the fullest extent of that interest.” The amendment makes clear that for tracts with multiple owners, any type of interest held by the applicant-operator in a unitized tract counts towards the minimum 65% threshold required to apply for an order permitting forced unitization from the chief of the division of oil and gas resources management.
A federal district court in Ohio recently upheld the constitutionality of Ohio’s forced pooling statute (R.C. § 1509.28) in Kerns v. Chesapeake Exploration, LLC, et al., N.D. Ohio No. 5:18 CV 389 (June 13, 2018). R.C. § 1509.28 establishes the procedure for owners to combine contiguous acreage and interests to efficiently and effectively develop the oil and gas resources underlying that land. Additionally, the statute grants the chief of the division of oil and gas resources management the authority to compel landowners unwilling to lease their land to join in drilling operations. The constitutional challenge in Kerns involved the same group of landowners whose writ of mandamus was rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court in January. Following their unsuccessful challenge at the Ohio Supreme Court, the landowners alleged that R.C. § 1509.28 violated their constitutional rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments by authorizing an impermissible taking of their property. In rejecting the constitutional challenge, the federal district court relied on previous decisions from the United States Supreme Court holding that the statute was a legitimate exercise of Ohio’s police powers to protect correlative rights and reduce waste. In deeming R.C. § 1509.28 constitutional, Ohio courts join the well-settled national consensus that unitization procedures do not constitute an impermissible taking of property.
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.