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Editor: D. A. Jeremy Telman
Valparaiso Univ. Law School

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

More about those gas well leases

Jeremy Telman recently posted about this front page article in the NYT about oil and gas well leases, and the contractual traps for the unwary. This article mentions and explains some common terms in such leases.

There are additional contract issues that were raised by the article having to do with the bargaining process. There's a bargaining imbalance where you have one party with greater financial resources than the other or one with greater financial need. Another bargaining disparity involves knowledge - the oil and gas companies are much more familiar with these types of transactions and more knowledgeable about what could go wrong. It's their business. The landowners, on the other hand, presumably don't enter into these transactions often.

Unfortunately, contract law doesn't usually recognize these kinds of bargaining disparities, especially outside of the consumer context -- at least not to invalidate the contracts. A court might consider them in interpreting ambiguous contractual clauses. In addition, the landowners might be able to raise a lack of good faith argument that might affect the interpretation or construction of some of the contractual clauses or the parties' performance under the contract. For example, one lease cited in the article contained language that said that "preparation" to drill would allow the gas company to extend the duration of the lease. The landowners had negotiated what they considered a bad deal and planned to renegotiate it after it expired. A day before the expiration date, the gas company "parked a bulldozer nearby and started to survey an access road. A company official informed them that by moving equipment to the site, Chief Oil and Gas was preparing to drill and was therefore allowed to extend the lease indefinitely." I don't know about you, but that strikes me as performance that's not in good faith. I hope a judge would agree.

Something else that struck me in reading about these leases was how they highlight the overconfidence and optimism bias in these types of deals. Landowners are likely to focus on the potential upside of these deals - which can be pretty sky high. But things can and do go wrong in any type of transaction. The long term nature of these contracts makes it even more important to think carefully about the risks and not just the upside -- but a long time horizon also makes it harder to evaluate those risks.

And of course, as Jeremy mentioned in his post, there's the Peevyhouse issue. Even if you carefully draft a "clean up" or similar clause, a court may find performance to be economically wasteful and not enforce it. To safeguard against that, the parties might consider putting clean up costs in an escrow account and including a liquidated damages provision.

While this article was about gas well leases, I can see similar issues arising with other long term contracts, particularly those between landowners and energy companies. I predict we'll see a slew of innovative solutions around alternative energy (such as windfarms on private land) which is great - but again, it's important to take a large dose of caution with that optimism, especially if you are representing the "little guy/gal."

[Nancy Kim]

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