Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Accommodation Doctrine – More Court Action


Over the past three years, I have written on a couple of occasions about the accommodation doctrine – a mineral owner’s right to use the surface estate to drill for and produce minerals.  The doctrine requires a balancing of the interests of the surface and mineral owner.  But, at least one court has also applied the doctrine to groundwater.  Now, a federal appellate court has applied the doctrine to find that vertical drilling on farmland may constitute a trespass.

An update on the accommodation doctrine in the courts – that’s the topic of today’s post.

Accommodation Doctrine

Land ownership includes two separate estates in land – the surface estate and the mineral estate.  The mineral estate can be severed from the surface estate with the result that ownership of the separate estates is in different parties.  In some states, the mineral estate is dominant.  That means that the mineral estate owner can freely use the surface estate to the extent reasonably necessary for the exploration, development and production of the minerals beneath the surface.  If the owner of the mineral estate has only a single method for developing the minerals, many courts will allow that method to be utilized without consideration of its impact on the activities of the surface estate owner.  See., e.g., Merriman v. XTO Energy, Inc., 407 S.W.3d 244 (Tex. 2013). 

But, under the accommodation doctrine, if alternative means of development are reasonably available that would not disrupt existing activities on the surface those alternative means must be utilized.  In other words, the accommodation doctrine applies if the surface owner must establish that the lessee’s surface use precludes (or substantially impairs) the existing surface use, and that the surface owner doesn’t have any reasonable alternative means to continue the current use of the surface estate.  For example, in Getty Oil co. v. Jones, 470 S.W.2d 618 (Tex. 1971), a surface estate owner claimed that the mineral estate owner did not accommodate existing surface use.  To prevail on that claim, the Getty court determined that the surface owner must prove that the mineral estate owner’s use precluded or substantially impaired the existing surface use, that the surface estate owner had no reasonable alternative method for continuing the existing surface use, and that the mineral estate owner has reasonable development alternatives that would not disrupt the surface use. 

Accommodation Doctrine and Water

A question left unanswered in the 1971 decision was whether the accommodation doctrine applied beyond subsurface mineral use to the exercise of groundwater rights.  In 2016, the Texas Supreme Court, in Coyote Lake Ranch, LLC v. City of Lubbock, 498 S.W.3d 53 (Tex. Sup. Ct. 2016), held that it did.  Thus, according to the Court, the doctrine applies in situations where the owner of the groundwater impairs an existing surface use, the surface owner has no reasonable alternative to continue surface use, and the groundwater owner has a reasonable way to access and produce water while simultaneously allowing the surface owner to use the surface.

The Court held that the language of the deed for the land involved in the litigation governed the rights of the parties, but that the deed didn’t address the core issues presented in the case. For example, the Court determined that the deed was silent on the issue of where drilling could occur and the usage of overhead power lines and facilities associated with water development. The Court determined that water and minerals were sufficiently similar such that the accommodation doctrine should also apply to water – both disappear, can be severed, and are subject to the rule of capture, etc. The Court also concluded that a groundwater estate severed from the surface estate enjoys an implied right to use as much of the surface as is reasonably necessary for the production of groundwater. Thus, unless the parties have a written agreement detailing all of the associated rights and responsibilities of the parties, the accommodation doctrine would apply to resolve disputes and sort out rights.

In 2018, however, the Texas Court of Appeals, refused to further expand the accommodation doctrine.  Harrison v. Rosetta Res. Operating, LP, No. 08-15-00318-CV 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 6208 (Tex Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2018), involved a water-use dispute between an oil and gas lessee and the surface owner. The plaintiff owned the surface of a 320-acre tract. The surface estate had been severed from the mineral estate, with the minerals being owned by the State of Texas.  The plaintiff executed an oil and gas lease on behalf of the State that allowed the lessee to use water from the land necessary for operations except water from wells or tanks of the landowner.

To settle a lawsuit with the plaintiff, the lessee agreed to buy 120,000 barrels of water.  The lessee built a frac pit to store the water that it would use in drilling operations and drilled two wells.  The lessee then assigned the lease to the defendant.  The defendant drilled a third well and had plans to drill additional wells.  However, the defendant did not buy water from the plaintiff as the lessee had.  Instead, the defendant pumped water from a neighbor and brought temporary waterlines onto the plaintiff’s property to fill storage tanks. 

The plaintiff claimed that the defendant (via an employee) orally agreed to continue the existing arrangement that the plaintiff had with lessee and was in violation with an alleged industry custom in Texas – that an oil and gas lessee would only buy water from the surface owner of the tract it was operating.  The plaintiff claimed that it wasn’t necessary for the defendant to bring in hoses and equipment because the defendant should have bought the plaintiff’s water from the plaintiff, Not doing so violated the accommodation doctrine.  The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments.

The appellate court determined that the plaintiff’s accommodation doctrine arguments appeared to rest on his proposition that because a frac pit was built on his land for use by the former lessee, it unified the use of the land with the oil and gas operations, and when the defendant chose not buy his water it substantially interfered with his existing use of the land as a source of water for drilling operations. Thus, the substantial interference complained of was that the frac pit was no longer profitable because the defendant is not using it to supply water for its operations. The appellate court held that categorizing a refusal to buy goods produced from the land as interference with the land for purposes of the accommodation doctrine would stretch the doctrine beyond recognition. Therefore, because the defendant’s use did not impair the plaintiff’s existing surface use in any way, except in the sense that not buying the water had precluded the plaintiff from realizing potential revenue from selling its water to the defendant, the inconvenience to the surface estate was not evidence that the owner had no reasonable alternative to maintain the existing use. Lastly, the court determined that if it were to hold for the plaintiff on these facts they would, in effect, be holding that all mineral lessees must use and purchase water from the surface owner under the accommodation doctrine if his water is available for use. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed. 

Recent Case

In, Bay v. Anadarko E&P Onshore LLC, No. 17-1374, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 36454 (10th Cir. Dec. 26, 2018), the plaintiffs, a married couple, operate a farm in Weld, County, CO. In 1907, the Union Pacific Railroad acquired large swaths of land and sold off surface rights to others, ultimately selling subsurface rights to mineral deposits to the defendant, an oil and gas company. The 1907 deed reserved the following: “First. All coal and other minerals within or underlying said lands. Second. The exclusive right to prospect in and upon said land for coal and other minerals therein, or which may be supposed to be therein, and to mine for and remove, from said land, all coal and other minerals which may be found thereon by anyone. Third. The right of ingress, egress and regress upon said land to prospect for, mine and remove any and all such coal or other minerals; and the right to use so much of said land as may be convenient or necessary for the right-of-way to and from such prospect places or mines, and for the convenient and proper operation of such prospect places, mines, and for roads and approaches thereto or for removal therefrom of coal, mineral, machinery or other material” [emphasis added].

The plaintiffs’ farm was above a large oil and gas deposit. Before 2000, the railroad entered into agreements with surface owners before drilling for oil or gas. Those agreements often included payments to surface owners and provided that the railroad would pay for surface property damages, including crop damages. In 2000, the defendant bought the railroad’s mineral rights in the oil and gas deposit underlying the plaintiffs’ property. In 2004, the defendant leased the mineral rights under the plaintiffs’ farms to an exploration company which drilled three vertical wells on a part of the plaintiffs’ farm. An energy company bought the exploration company in 2006 and drilled four more vertical wells on another part of the plaintiffs’ farm between 2007 and 2011. In an attempt to have fewer wells drilled on their farm and minimize the impact to their farmland, the plaintiffs asked the energy company to drill directionally. The energy company requested $100,000 per directional well. The plaintiffs refused, and the energy company continued to drill vertically. The plaintiffs sued, claiming that the energy company’s surface use constituted a trespass because directional drilling would have resulted in two wells on their property rather than seven.  Directional drilling is the norm in the county with one drill site per pad serving 12-36 wells.

The trial court granted a judgment as a matter of law to the defendant on the basis that the defendant had presented sufficient evidence that vertical drilling was the only commercially reasonable practice; that this practice was afforded in the additional rights granted in the original deed; and that the plaintiffs could not establish trespass. On appeal, the appellate court reversed. The appellate court noted that state law held that deeds containing language identical to the “convenient and necessary” language of the deed at issue does not grant mineral owners more rights than what state common law provides. The appellate court also expressed doubt as to whether a mineral reservation in a deed can expand surface or mineral ownership rights unless those rights are clearly defined in accordance with Gerrity Oil and Gas Corp. v. Magness, 946 P.2d 913 (Colo. 1997). The appellate court concluded that the deed at issue in the case was insufficient to expand mineral or surface rights beyond those recognized in state common law. The appellate court also held that the trial court erred by requiring the plaintiffs to show that vertical drilling wasn’t commercially reasonable. Under Gerrity, the appellate court noted, a surface owner can introduce evidence that "reasonable alternatives were available." Once that evidence is introduced, the appellate court determined that it is then up to a judge or jury to "balance the competing interests of the operator and surface owner and objectively determine whether ... the operator's surface use was both reasonable and necessary." 


The accommodation doctrine sounds reasonable.  But, defining what a reasonable use can be difficult to determine, and if new uses can be asserted the mineral owner’s rights can be diminished.  From an economic standpoint, it would seem that the owner of the surface estate as the accommodated party should pay for the extra expense associated with the accommodation.  In other words, when the mineral estate owner must accommodate, but at the expense of the surface estate owner, both parties benefit and the surface estate owner can’t get rights back for nothing that it sold when the original grant was created.  Some states, such as Kansas, follow this approach.

Real Property, Water Law | Permalink


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