West Virginia Supreme Court Affirms Approach in Oil and Gas Title Memorandum Decision

The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia recently issued a memorandum opinion interpreting a reservation of oil and gas “royalty.” The result of the Court’s holding is consistent with long standing West Virginia case law regarding oil and gas severances.

In Haught Family Tr. v. Williamson, No. 19-0368, 2020 W. Va. LEXIS 248 (Apr. 20, 2020), the Court interpreted a 1907 deed that reserved, “one half of all the royalty of oil (which royalty shall not be less than the usual one-eighth), and one half of the proceeds of all gas which may be produced from said tract of land…” The Court ultimately affirmed the circuit court’s decision, interpreting the 1907 deed as reserving a 1/2 non-participating royalty interest (“NPRI”). In reaching its decision, the Court stated that it relied upon Davis v. Hardman, 148 W. Va. 82 (1963) and Paxton v. Benedum-Trees Oil Co., 80 W. Va. 187 (1917) to ascertain the intent of the parties as expressed in the deed. Citing to Davis, the Court indicated that the 1907 deed’s use of the phrase “when produced” evidenced that the parties intended to limit the interest reserved to instances where oil and gas was actually produced. To construe the 1907 deed as reserving an in place interest would require regarding the words “when produced” as meaningless. The Court further implied that the deed’s use of “when produced” rendered the deed unambiguous.

The Petitioner argued that the circuit court failed to construe the deed as of the time of the deed and reservations’ creation in 1907, and contended that the Court should analyze the deed as the Supreme Court would in 1907. See Syl. Pt. 2, Oresta v. Roman Bros., Inc., 137 W. Va. 633 (1952). However, the Court emphasized that its’ role, as stated in Davis v. Hardman, is to ascertain the intent of the parties as expressed in the deed. The Court further indicated that the reservation in question was similar to the reservation interpreted in Davis, and was executed around the same time as the Davis reservation. As a result, the Court held that the deed in question reserved a 1/2 NPRI.

The reservation in Davis v. Hardman had notable distinctions from the 1907 deed, and the Davis court relied upon this distinct language in its analysis. The deed at issue in Davis reserved, “the oil and gas royalty, when produced, in and under said land, but said second party, his heirs and assigns, to have the right to lease said land for oil and gas purposes and to receive bonuses and carrying rentals,” and was interpreted as reserving an NPRI. In its analysis, the Davis court listed the distinguishing characteristics of NPRIs and in place interests in oil and gas:

(1) Such share of production is not chargeable with any of the costs of discovery and production; (2) the owner has no right to do any act or thing to discover and produce the oil and gas; (3) the owner has no right to grant leases; and (4) the owner has no right to receive bonuses or delay rentals. Conversely, the distinguishing characteristics of an interest in minerals in place are: (1) Such interest is not free of costs of discovery and production; (2) the owner has the right to do any and all acts necessary to discover and produce oil and gas; (3) the owner has the right to grant leases, and (4) the owner has the right to receive bonuses and delay rentals.

The Court indicated that the intent of the parties as expressed in the deed was clear when read in light of these characteristics. The Davis deed specifically conveyed all rights to lease and receive bonuses or “carrying” (delay) rentals. A conveyance of such rights is directly contradictory to an in place reservation. The Davis court relied heavily on these characteristics and the deed’s specific conveyance of leasing and bonus rights in its analysis. Although the Davis court observed that a reservation of oil and gas “when produced” supported an NPRI reservation, its analysis did not focus on this language as implied by the Court in Haught.

The Court in Haught Family Tr. v. Williamson issued only a memorandum opinion due to the lack of novel issues of law. Although the opinion does not identically mirror the analysis in Davis v. Hardman, it remains valid law as to this particular case. The reservation language analyzed in Haught is typical of NPRI reservation language used throughout West Virginia from the 19th century to present. The result of the Court’s holding remains in line with prior West Virginia cases, and generally follows typical interpretation practices of title examiners.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Accepts Appeal in Case Involving Lease Abandonment by Operator

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently accepted the appeal of Mitch-Well Energy, Inc. (“Mitch-Well”) in SLT Holdings, LLC v. Mitch-Well Energy, Inc. on the issue of whether Mitch-Well effectively abandoned its leases by failing either to produce oil or gas or pay required minimum rental payments to the landowners.  In 2019, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that Mitch-Well abandoned its leases due to the lack of production and payments.

The leases, executed in 1985, cover two tracts in Warren County, Pennsylvania, and contain provisions requiring Mitch-Well to drill a certain number of wells on the parcels and make yearly minimum payments to the lessors.  The leases also contain a provision stating that the leases will continue for so long as Mitch-Well determines that oil and gas can be produced in paying quantities.  From 1996 through 2013, wells drilled under the leases failed to produce in paying quantities and Mitch-Well neglected to make the minimum payments are required by the leases, prompting the landowners to seek judicial determination that Mitch-Well abandoned the leases.

On appeal, the Supreme Court will consider Mitch-Well’s argument that in its good faith determination, the wells were productive even though the trial court failed to take testimony on this issue. The Supreme Court asked Mitch-Well and the landowners to address Aye v. Philadelphia Co. and Jacobs v. CNG Transmission Corp., indicating that the Court may consider whether the leases survive both the automatic termination due to the non-payment of royalties and whether Mitch-Well abandoned the leases during the 16 years of non-production.  This is an opportunity for the Court to provide additional clarity on Pennsylvania law relating to cessation of production and lease abandonment and termination.

Co-Tenancy Bill Signed by Governor Jim Justice

On Friday, March 9, 2018, Governor Jim Justice signed West Virginia Senate  HB 4268, known as the “Cotenancy Modernization and Majority Protection Act” into law, effective July 1, 2018.  As discussed in our post from last week, the passage of this legislation is the culmination of years of negotiations and compromise between West Virginia elected officials, the industry, landowners and mineral owners.  The bill is designed to streamline the oil and gas leasing process and facilitate further development without unnecessary delay, by carving out an exception to the West Virginia statute governing waste between certain co-tenants (individuals that all own undivided interests in the same tract of land).

Under the existing law (W. Va. Code § 37-7-2) development of oil and gas from a tract of land without the consent of all the owners, or co-tenants, of the same will result in waste, with any party committing such waste being subject to their operations being enjoined and/or treble damages.  The new law states that development of oil and gas under certain conditions will not constitute waste. The bill states that any tract held by seven or more co-tenants can be developed upon the consent of 75% of such co-tenants.  However, the proposed operator must make reasonable efforts to negotiate leases with all of the oil and gas owners before they can find protection under the proposed new law.

Non-consenting co-tenants can either accept royalties equal to the highest percentage royalties paid to one of the consenting parties, proportionally reduced to their respective fractional interest, or elect to participate in the development and bear equal development and other costs with the lessee.  Unknown or unlocatable owners will be limited to receiving royalties equal to the highest percentage royalties paid to one of the consenting parties.  The statute also allows surface owners to reclaim the oil and gas title held by any unknown or unlocatable owners after seven years.

The bill strikes a delicate balance between all stakeholders by protecting land and minerals owners while updating the law for the horizontal drilling era.

WV Senate and House Pass Co-Tenancy Bill, Awaits Governor’s Signature

Today, the West Virginia Senate passed HB 4268, popularly known as the “co-tenancy” bill.  Formally titled as the Co-tenancy Modernization and Majority Protection Act, the bill was designed to streamline the oil and gas leasing process and facilitate further development without unnecessary delay.  The bill passed the House of Delegates on February 15, 2018.

If accepted by the governor, HB 4268 would carve out an exception to the West Virginia statute governing waste between certain co-tenants (individuals that all own an undivided interests in the same tract of land).  Under the existing law (W. Va. Code § 37-7-2) development of oil and gas from a tract of land without the consent of all the owners, or co-tenants, of the same will result in waste, with any party committing such waste being subject to their operations being enjoined and/or treble damages.  The new law states that development of oil and gas under certain conditions will not constitute waste.

Upon final passage of the bill, any tract held by seven or more co-tenants can be developed upon the consent of 75% of such co-tenants.  However, the proposed operator must make reasonable efforts to negotiate leases with all of the oil and gas owners before they can find protection under the proposed new law.  Non-consenting co-tenants can either accept royalties equal to 12.5% of the oil or gas produced, proportionally reduced to their respective fractional interest, or elect to participate in the development and bear equal development and other costs with the lessee.  Unknown or unlocatable owners will be limited to receiving the 12.5% royalty.  The statute also allows surface owners to reclaim the oil and gas title held by any unknown or unlocatable owners after seven years.

Governor Justice of West Virginia said earlier this week that he would veto the co-tenancy bill if it found his desk, but has purportedly changed his mind.  The bill must obtain the concurrence of the West Virginia House of Delegates before being sent to the Governor’s desk.

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.

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.

Oil and Gas Lease Did Not Terminate for Failure to Pay Minimum Rental/Royalty Payments

On June 1, 2017, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a provision in an oil and gas lease requiring the lessee to pay a minimum rental/royalty does not automatically invoke a termination provision in an unrelated delay rental clause and is not void as against public policy.

In Bohlen v. Anadarko E&P Onshore, L.L.C., Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-4025, the Ohio Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a lessor can terminate an oil and gas lease if the lessee fails to pay minimum rental/royalty payments. In Bohlen, the oil and gas lease contained a primary term of one year along with standard secondary term language. The lease allowed the lessee to pay a delay rental for the privilege of deferring the commencement of a well. If this delay rental was not paid, then the lease would terminate. The Addendum attached to the lease stipulated that if royalty payments due to the lessor under the lease were less than $5,500, then lessee would pay any shortfall between the royalty payments and the $5,500. This minimum rental/royalty clause did not contain a termination provision. Lessee drilled two wells during the primary term of the lease but ultimately failed to pay yearly royalty amounts equal to or greater than $5,500. Lessors argued that the failure to pay a minimum rental/royalty triggered the termination clause found within the delay rental provision.

In Bohlen, the Court reasoned that the delay rental clause and the minimum annual-rental/royalty clause were two distinct clauses. Therefore, since the minimum rental/royalty clause did not contain termination language, the failure to pay the minimum royalty would not trigger the termination of the lease. It was of no consequence that the lease contained termination language in the delay rental clause since the two clauses at issue were to be read separately. Whether the lessee needed to compensate the lessor for underpayment was not at issue in the case.

Additionally, since the lease at issue contained a primary term, it did not violate public policy for being an indefinite lease.

Leggett v. EQT Production Company Case Rejects Tawney Reasoning, Opens Door for Further Challenges to Imposed System of Post-Production Cost Calculations in WV

On May 26, 2017, in a suit styled Leggett v EQT Production Company, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued majority and concurring (links to PDFs) opinions finding 4-1 that the use of the language “at the wellhead” in the Flat Rate Royalty Statute allows the use of the “net back” method to calculate royalties, and that the Estate of Tawney v. Columbia Natural Resources, L.L.C. case does not apply or control.  Leggett was certified to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to determine whether the holding in Tawney, which did not allow post-production expense deductions when calculating royalty, applied when royalties are paid on old, flat rate leases converted to a 1/8 royalty by application of West Virginia’s “Flat Rate Royalty Statute.”  The statute provides that royalties are to be paid “at the wellhead.”  Tawney held that “at the wellhead” language in a lease was ambiguous, and deductions could not be taken unless expressly authorized in the lease in detail as to the type and method of calculation.  After initially deciding Tawney applied and refusing to allow deductions under the Flat Rate Royalty Statute, the Leggett majority (with a change in composition post-election) reconsidered the case and reversed itself.  The Court held that the rules of contract construction used to decide Tawney did not apply when interpreting a statute.  More importantly, the Court seems to be signaling that it is willing to reconsider and possibly reverse Tawney, which could subsequently impact royalty calculations for West Virginia production.

Ohio Court Of Appeals Applies Broad Application of “Holder” Under Dormant Mineral Act

The Court of Appeals of Ohio, Seventh Appellate District, recently held that (i) heirs had standing to challenge a surface owners’ notice of abandonment under the Dormant Mineral Act (DMA), and (ii) an affidavit of preservation constitutes a valid claim to preserve mineral interests, regardless of whether the affidavit specifies a savings event.  In M&H P’ship v. Hines, 2017-Ohio-923, the appellant surface owner asserted that the heirs were not holders of the mineral interest, and therefore, had no standing to challenge the notice of abandonment.  The surface owner also asserted that the claim and affidavit filed by the heirs in response to the notice of abandonment did not identify any savings events that occurred in the 20-year period preceding the notice of abandonment, and therefore, the heirs did not properly preserve their interest.  The Court found both assertions to be meritless.

With regard to the standing issue, the Court held that the broad definition of “Holder” under the DMA includes heirs of the original record owner of the mineral.  Holder means the record holder of a mineral interest, and any person who derives the person’s rights from, or has a common source with, the record holder and whose claim does not indicate, expressly or by clear implication, that it is adverse to the interest of the record holder.  In this case, the heirs derive their rights from or have a common source with grandparents, who were the original record owner of the mineral interest.  Therefore, the court found that the definition of holder in the DMA is broad and includes the heirs.

As for the affidavit of preservation issue, the Court relied on the reasoning in Dodd v. Croskey, 2015-Ohio-2362, to hold that heirs’ affidavit of preservation constituted a valid claim to preserve their interest under the DMA.  Nothing in the DMA states that a claim to preserve must refer to a saving event that occurred within the preceding 20 years.  Additionally, the notice procedures do not require that the claim to preserve be itself filed in the 20 years preceding notice by the surface owner.  Instead, the statute plainly states that such a claim can be filed within 60 days after notice from the surface owner.  Accordingly, the plain language of the DMA allows the holder to file a claim to preserve the mineral interest or an affidavit that identifies a saving event that occurred within the 20 years preceding notice.  In this case, the heirs filed a document titled Affidavit Preserving Minerals, which identified the heirs as the current owners of the mineral interest and stated that the heirs did not intend to abandon their rights in the mineral interest, but intend to preserve their rights.  The Court held that this affidavit constituted a valid claim to preserve under the DMA and that no savings event needed to be specified therein.

 

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Affirms Trial Court’s Order To Terminate A Portion Of An Oil And Gas Lease And Eject Operator

On March 17, 2017, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed a trial court’s 2015 order that severed and terminated a portion of an oil and gas lease.  The subject lease covered 240 acres located in Venango County, Pennsylvania, which was subsequently subdivided.  Additionally, the leasehold interest was divided into depths that lie above and below the Onondaga formation and were held by different operators.  On appeal, the appellant operator argued that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the controversy because the plaintiffs failed to join all the indispensable parties.  This action was originally brought by property owners who acquired 32 acres of the 240 acre tract.

In part of affirming the trial court’s order, the Superior Court indicated that one of the major factors involved in a determination of whether a party is indispensable in a lease context is whether the lease is severable.  In this case, the court held the lease was severable based on the intent of the parties to the lease, which was determined by the language of the lease and the subsequent conduct of the successors in interest to the original lessee.  The lease specifically provided the lessee the “right to subdivide and release the premises.”  Additionally, successors in interest to the original lessee divided the leasehold interest into depths that lie above and below the Onondaga formation, which supports that the lease was severable.  The Superior Court distinguished this case from precedent set forth in Seneca Res. Corp. v. S & T Bank, 122 A.3d 374., that an operator was not required to be actively drilling undeveloped portions in order to maintain the leasehold on the bases that: (1) the leased acreage in this case consisted of a number of distinct parcels rather than one tract; (ii) the language of the subject lease provided the lessee the right to “subdivide and release” the property; and (iii) the successors in interest to the original lessee of the subject lease subdivided the leasehold into two or more formations rather than operating under the lease as a whole.  Based on these factors, the court held that the lease was severable.  Additionally, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that the lease had expired as to the subject property because the predecessors in interest to the appellant operator failed to produce oil and gas in paying quantities on the subject property and had breached the implied obligation to explore and develop the property “with reasonable diligence.”  Accordingly, the court held that the lease was null, void, and of no force and effect pertaining to the subject property.

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