This next-to-last entry in Blawgletter's seven-part series on the hottest oil & gas claims for returns to the theme of royalty owners who receive less than they believe the lease entitles them to. Part 6 addresses what happens when the operator deducts post-production expenses that it paid to its affiliates rather than independent entities. May the royalty owners sue to bar deduction of affiliates' "unreasonable" charges and recover shortages on earlier royalty payments due to those unreasonable charges?
Royalty owners often complain when operators agree to compute royalties (per the lease) “at the mouth of the well” but then deduct costs that arise downstream. They may feel even more unhappy if the leases (in which they reserved their royalty interests) provide something like “the royalty shall be free of all costs related to the exploration, production and marketing of oil and gas production from the lease”.
Under Texas law, even an express bar on post-production costs may have no effect. See Potts v. Chesapeake Expl., L.L.C., 760 F.3d 470 (5th Cir. 2014) (applying Heritage Resources v. NationsBank, 939 S.W.2d 118 (Tex. 1996), to declare no-deduct clause surplusage); Warren v. Chesapeake Expl., L.L.C., 759 F.3d 413 (5th Cir. 2014) (same); but see Chesapeake Expl., L.L.C. v. Hyder, 427 S.W.3d 472, 477 (Tex. App. – San Antonio 2014, pet. granted) (“[W]e interpret the parties’ agreement as the royalty clause excluding all costs and expenses of production and post-production, including post-production costs and expenses incurred between the point of delivery and the point of sale.”)* (emphasis in original). Even in jurisdictions that, like Texas, permit deduction of post-production costs despite clauses that appear to prohibit the practice, might the royalty owners still have a claim for short-payment?
The Fifth Circuit in Warren left open the issue of the impact of sales to affiliates. The panel noted that “the parties have not argued or briefed, and this opinion does not consider, the relationship among affiliated Chesapeake entities or the impact, if any, that relationship might have on matters at issue regarding the payment or calculation of royalties.” Warren, 759 F.3d at 419. The non-decision raises the question of whether a royalty owner mount a claim that the operator, through its affiliates, charged more than a reasonable amount for post-wellhead costs (such as expenses to gather, compress, treat, process, and market oil and gas).
The traits that a good royalty-owner claim would have include these:
- Large production from the lease area during the (statute of limitations) look-back period;
- Benchmark comparisons that show substantially lower charges for the post-production services that the operator’s affiliates provide and charge for;
- Evidence of a large gap between the affiliates’ costs of providing post-production services and the charges to the operator; and
- High market prices during the look-back period.
The series for the 66th Annual Oil & Gas Law Institute comes to an end next week, when we'll address landowners' claims for damage to the surface.
The hottest oil & gas claims series reflects industry conditions as of early 2015. Has the passage of three months affected the sorts of claims that industry participants have made? With the price of West Texas Intermediate rising from around $48 per barrel to almost $57, has pressure on contracts eased? What effects have resulted from the ongoing slump in natural gas prices, which have fallen below $2.55 per mmBtu from over $2.80 in January 2015?
Let us hear your thoughts.
The Supreme Court of Texas granted review in Hyder and heard argument in the case on March 24, 2015. See Chesapeake Exploration L.L.C. v. Hyder, No. 14-0302 (Tex.). You can see video of the argument here.