Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals Rules on Marketable Title Act and Dormant Mineral Act Claims

Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals recently issued three separate opinions involving Ohio’s Marketable Title Act (the “MTA”) and Dormant Mineral Act (the “DMA”): Miller v. Mellott, 2019-Ohio-504 (Ct. App.); Soucik v. Gulfport Energy Corp., 2019—Ohio-491 (Ct. App.); and Hickman v. Consolidation Coal Co., 2019-Ohio-492 (Ct. App.). Despite ruling that the severed royalty and/or fee interests were subject to both the MTA and the DMA, the Seventh District held that the mineral/royalty interests had not been abandoned and/or extinguished by either.

In its MTA analysis, the court scrutinized the language of the root of title deed used by the surface owners to establish title to the severed interest. If the surface owner’s root of title contained a reference to an oil and gas reservation, the court found that the surface owner was precluded from claiming the mineral interest had been extinguished under the MTA. The court determined that even a perfunctory exception to oil and gas “as heretofore reserved” barred the surface owner from claiming title to the mineral interest under the MTA. Finding that the severed minerals survived extinguishment under the MTA, the court addressed underlying defects in the surface owner’s DMA procedure.

In denying the surface owners’ claims under the DMA in Miller and Soucik, the court determined that the surface owners failed to satisfy the diligence required by Ohio law in identifying the mineral holders before permitting notice by publication. Even though the margins of the deeds severing the mineral interests contained notations of abandonment, the court permitted examination of the underlying procedure to determine whether abandonment was proper. Surface owners carry the burden to establish that they attempted service by certified mail prior to proceeding to notice by publication. Because the surface owners in Miller and Soucik failed to provide evidence through affidavits or otherwise that they even attempted to serve notice by certified mail, the court found that the surface owners failed to comply with the notice provisions of the DMA. Therefore, the court ruled that the severed mineral interests had not been abandoned under the DMA.

Ohio Supreme Court Clarifies Details Required for Specific Reference Under the Marketable Title Act

On December 13, 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court in Blackstone v. Moore, 2018-Ohio-4959, affirmed the Seventh District Court of Appeals decision preserving a severed royalty interest from extinguishment under the Marketable Title Act (the “MTA”) because of a specific reference in the surface owners’ chain of title. The MTA allows an owner to rely on a record chain of title to establish ownership and operates to extinguish interests and claims existing prior to the root of title unless an exception applies. The root of title is the most recent instrument of record at least 40 years prior to the time marketability is being determined.  In addition to actively preserving their interest from extinguishment through their own actions, an interest may be preserved, even with no action by its owner, if specifically identified in the record chain of title of the individual attempting to extinguish the interest.

The Blackstones (surface owners) claimed that the royalty interest created in 1915 owned by the Moores had been extinguished by operation of law under the MTA. However, the Blackstones’ 1969 root of title referenced the outstanding oil and gas royalty interest by its owner’s name but failed to include a volume/page reference to the instrument that created the interest. The court rejected the Blackstones argument for a bright-line rule requiring the volume and page number, as the legislature did not require this specificity in the statute. Accordingly, the court determined that the Blackstones’ 1969 root of title specifically referenced the Moores’ interest, thereby preserving the Moores’ interest from extinguishment.

Justice DeGenaro, who is leaving the court at the end of 2018, wrote a concurring opinion emphasizing the narrow scope of the holding. She opined that the MTA no longer applies to severed mineral interests following the 1989 enactment of the Dormant Mineral Act (the “DMA”). While the issue of whether the MTA applies to severed mineral interests was not before the court in Blackstone, this issue is currently before the Seventh District Court of Appeals in a separate, unrelated case. The Seventh District had previously applied both the DMA and MTA to the Moores’ severed royalty interest when Blackstone was on appeal before them.

Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals Rules on Dormant Mineral Act’s Requirement of Reasonable Due Diligence Prior To Notice by Publication

On November 26, 2018, Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals in Sharp v. Miller, 7th Dist. Jefferson No. 17 JE 0022, 2018-Ohio-4740, affirmed the abandonment of oil and gas interests pursuant to the Dormant Mineral Act (O.R.C. §5301.56) (the “DMA”). The issues before the court were: (i) whether the surface owners’ (the Millers) service of notice by publication to the mineral owners (the Sharps) properly complied with Section (E)(1) of the DMA; and (ii) whether the oil and gas leases executed by the Millers, prior to claiming the minerals under the DMA, constituted savings events for the Sharps. The court held in favor of the Millers on both issues confirming the abandonment of the Sharps’ oil and gas interests.

The Sharps alleged that they received insufficient notice of the surface owners’ intent to abandon the minerals, claiming that a reasonable search by the Millers would have revealed the identities and addresses of the Sharps, and thus required notice to be served by certified mail instead of by publication. In rejecting the Sharps’ argument that the Millers failed to exercise reasonable due diligence, the court used the failed results of the Sharps’ own search to establish that the Millers’ search was sufficient. In line with its recent decision Shilts v. Beardmore, 7th Dist. Monroe No. 16 MO 0003, 2018-Ohio-863, the Seventh District again declined to establish an objective bright-line rule for when notice by publication is permitted or to define “reasonable due diligence.” Instead, the court will continue to apply a subjective test and look to the facts and circumstances in each individual case to determine if the surface owners conducted a reasonable search in attempting to identify the mineral interest holders. Additionally, whether a surface owner’s search was reasonable may depend on the outcome of the mineral owner’s search using alternative resources, such as searching the records of adjacent counties, search engine inquires, and searching for heirs on subscription websites like ancestry.com.

In a matter of first impression, the court rejected the argument that oil and gas leases executed by the Millers, prior to claiming the minerals under the DMA, constituted savings events for the Sharps. While the Ohio Supreme Court has held that a recorded oil and gas lease is a title transaction (Chesapeake Exploration, L.L.C. v. Buell, 144 Ohio St.3d 490, 2015-Ohio-4551, 45 N.E.3d 185, ¶66), the Seventh District noted that the Millers did not own the minerals at the time of the lease. Therefore, the mineral interest was not the “subject of” the title transaction. As such, the leases did not constitute savings events under the DMA for the Sharps and did not preclude abandonment of the Sharps’ interest under the DMA.

The Sharps have until January 10, 2019 to appeal the Seventh District’s decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The 2018 Babst Calland Report Focuses on the Appalachian Basin Oil & Gas Industry Forging Ahead Despite Obstacles

Babst Calland today released its annual energy industry report: The 2018 Babst Calland Report – Appalachian Basin Oil & Gas Industry: Forging Ahead Despite Obstacles; Legal and Regulatory Perspective for Producers and Midstream Operators.  This annual review of shale gas development activity in the Appalachian Basin acknowledges an ongoing rebound despite obstacles presented by regulatory agencies, the courts, activists, and the market. To request a copy of the Report, contact info@babstcalland.com.

In this Report, Babst Calland attorneys provide perspective on issues, challenges, opportunities and recent developments in the Appalachian Basin and beyond relevant to producers and operators. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s May 2018 report, the Appalachian Marcellus and Utica shale plays account for more than 40 percent of U.S. natural gas output, compared to only three percent a decade ago. Since then, the Appalachian Basin has become recognized in the U.S. and around the world as a major source of natural gas and natural gas liquids.

The industry has been forging ahead amidst relatively low natural gas prices, infrastructure building, acreage rationalization and drilling plans that align with business expectations. The policy landscape continues to evolve with ever-changing federal and state environmental and safety regulations and tax structures along with a patchwork of local government requirements across the multi-state region.

Joseph K. Reinhart, shareholder and co-chair of Babst Calland’s Energy and Natural Resources Group, said, “This Report provides perspective on the challenges and opportunities of a shale gas industry in the Appalachian Basin that continues to enjoy a modest rebound. While more business-friendly policies and procedures are emanating from Washington, D.C., threats of trade wars are raising concerns about the U.S. energy industry’s ability to fully capitalize on planned exports to foreign markets.”

To read more: click here.

Federal Court Upholds Constitutionality of Ohio’s Unitization Statute

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.

Employment & Labor Alert: Wage Hour Division Announces PAID Program to Assist with FLSA Compliance

On March 6, 2018, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor (WHD) announced a new pilot program, the Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program, which is intended to encourage employers to identify and correct potentially non-compliant practices.

According to DOL’s Q&A page on the PAID program (https://www.dol.gov/whd/PAID/#4) “The PAID program provides a framework for proactive resolution of potential overtime and minimum wage violations under the FLSA. The program’s primary objectives are to resolve such claims expeditiously and without litigation, to improve employers’ compliance with overtime and minimum wage obligations, and to ensure that more employees receive the back wages they are owed—faster.”  To read more: click here.

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.

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.

Deduction of Post-Production Expenses from Royalty Payments in Ohio

A federal court recently addressed two contentious issues affecting calculation of royalty payments from production of shale gas in Ohio: (1) whether operators may deduct post-production expenses (costs for gathering, compression, treatment, processing, transportation, and dehydration) when calculating royalty payments; and (2) whether operators are required to pay royalties on all gas extracted at the wellhead – including gas that is lost between the wellhead and the point of sale (i.e. “line loss” gas). Lutz v. Chesapeake Appalachia, L.L.C, No. 4:09-cv-2256, Dkt. 142 (N.D. Ohio, Oct. 25, 2017) (Judge Sara Lioi).

For more information, read our Legal Perspective.

The 2017 Babst Calland Report Focuses on the Resurgence of the Appalachian Shale Gas Industry

On June 20, 2017, Babst Calland released its seventh annual energy industry report entitled The 2017 Babst Calland Report – Upstream, Midstream and Downstream: Resurgence of the Appalachian Shale Industry; Legal and Regulatory Perspective for Producers and Midstream OperatorsThis annual review of shale gas development activity acknowledges the continuing evolution of this industry in the face of economic, regulatory, legal and local government challenges. To request a copy of the Report, contact info@babstcalland.com.

In this Report, Babst Calland attorneys provide perspective on issues, challenges, opportunities and recent developments in the Appalachian Basin and beyond relevant to producers and operators.

In general, the oil and gas industry has rebounded during the past year through efficiency measures, consolidation and a resurgence of business opportunities related to shale gas development and its impact on upstream, midstream and downstream industries. As a result, many new opportunities and approaches to regulation, asset optimization and infrastructure are underway. Increased spending during the past year has led to a significantly higher rig count in the Appalachian Basin enabling growth in the domestic production of oil and gas as other shale plays across the country experience reductions.

The shale gas industry continues to provide the tri-state region with significant economic opportunities through employment and related revenue from the development of well sites, building of pipelines necessary to transport gas to market, and new downstream opportunities being created for manufacturing industries due to the volume of natural gas and natural gas liquids produced in the Appalachian Basin. Shell’s progress from a year ago to construct an ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania represents just one example of the expanding downstream market for natural gas. Many other manufacturing firms are expected to enter the region and establish businesses drawn by the energy and raw materials associated with natural gas and natural gas liquids from the Marcellus and Utica shales.

The Report also highlights changes that have occurred during the past year in the political landscape that are expected to affect the energy industry. The Trump administration is signaling a fundamental shift in the energy policies established by the Obama administration. New executive orders and policies have been issued that promise to lead to more pipeline development, reduced federal oversight of the oil and gas industry and increased access to oil and natural gas reserves.

Joseph K. Reinhart, shareholder and co-chair of Babst Calland’s Energy and Natural Resources Group, said, “This Report provides perspective on the challenges and opportunities of a resurging shale gas industry in the Appalachian Basin, including: the divergence of federal and state policy that creates more uncertainty for industry; increased special interest opposition groups on new issues and forums despite their lack of success in the courts; and the expansion from drilling to midstream development and now to downstream manufacturing that demonstrates the emergence of a more diverse energy economy.”

The 74-page Report contains six sections, highlighted below, each addressing key challenges for oil and gas producers and midstream operators.

  • Business Issues: Adapting to the New Price Environment as natural gas producers continue to focus on reducing costs and improving efficiencies. Recently, the number of natural gas producers in the Appalachian Basin has contracted through select merger and acquisition activity. With efficiency of operations in mind, natural gas producers continue to focus on consolidating their activities geographically. The oil and gas industry faced significant financial stress over the past year, and 2016 will go down as one of the more dramatic years in the United States’ oil and gas history. In the 2016 calendar year, primarily due to low commodity prices, 70 North American oil and gas exploration and production companies filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • State and Federal Governments Remain Active in a Changing Regulatory Landscape as developments in the state environmental standards for enforcement, air, water and waste management in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, as well as anticipated initiatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), will continue to have an effect on production and midstream operations. Separately, the impact of the Trump administration on various federal regulatory initiatives from the Obama era promises to be significant. President Donald Trump’s March 28, 2017 Executive Order was directed towards the development of the country’s natural resources. The order, among other things, requires agencies to review regulations that may burden the development or use of domestic energy resources.
  • Pipeline Safety Legislative and Regulatory Developments Continue to Shape the Industry through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) pipeline safety program. It is unlikely that there will be a dramatic shift in PHMSA’s enforcement policy in 2017. “Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2016” (PIPES Act) was signed into law last year with a provision allowing PHMSA to issue emergency orders if an unsafe condition or practice constitutes, or is causing, an imminent hazard. These emergency orders can impose industry-wide operational restrictions, prohibitions, or safety measures without a prior hearing.
  • Litigation Trends including a number of alleged nuisance claims continue to travel through West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania courts. Materials discussing alleged health effects from unconventional natural gas development continue to be disseminated at a record pace by industry opposition groups. A casual review of the material could lead to the erroneous conclusion that air emissions have not been tested; this is not, however, the case. The air quality data collected by a variety of objective parties using established monitoring and testing protocols around shale development in northeastern U.S. over the last six years demonstrate that shale operations are safe.
  • Local Government Law and Regulations Continue to Spawn Debate and Legal Challenges which continue to increase throughout the Appalachian Basin. However, the industry has successfully challenged overly-restricted ordinances. In contrast to municipalities that have adopted ordinances that permit reasonable oil and gas development, some local governments continued in 2017 to test their regulatory authority by enacting strict regulations for uses ancillary to well site development. Operators impacted by these regulations likewise continued to push back on these local regulations that severely impede, if not entirely prohibit, development or operation.
  • Downstream Opportunities include exciting developments for production and midstream companies with new emerging markets for consumption of natural gas and natural gas liquids, such as power generation, export, and the petrochemical and related manufacturing industries. The U.S. petrochemical industry is undergoing tremendous growth, including the Northeast which is a prime target for more niche markets, and an opportunity to repurpose industrial assets for this regionalized growth.

As market conditions evolve for the oil and gas industry in the Appalachia Basin and throughout the United States, Babst Calland’s multidisciplinary team of energy attorneys continues to stay abreast of the many legal and regulatory challenges currently facing producers and midstream operators.

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