Summer 2012 Legal Update by Andrea Knouse
LOUISIANA LEGAL UPDATE
By Andrea Knouse
Mayhall & Blaise
The Louisiana Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit recently decided Cason v Chesapeake Operating, Inc., 47,084, 2012 WL 1192404 (La. App. 2 Cir. 4/11/12), In said case, the Court discussed what constitutes “engaged in operations for drilling” on a lease premises so as to continue the lease beyond its primary term as well as interpreted the “adjacent land clause” found in numerous oil, gas and mineral leases.
Plaintiffs, Edgar and Flora Cason, appealed a Judgment from the District Court granting Defendants, Empress Louisiana Properties, et al, a preliminary injunction prohibiting Plaintiffs from interfering with the construction of a pipeline on Plaintiffs’ leased property.
Plaintiffs executed an oil, gas and mineral lease on about 7,200 acres of land in favor of Pride Oil & Gas which, with exercised extensions, would terminate on May 31, 2010. Also included in said lease was a clause which stated that the lease would remain in existence as long as the lessee is “engaged in operations for drilling”, another allowing ingress and egress to the lease tract on “adjacent lands” to construct necessary roads and pipelines, and the right to assign the lease in whole or in part. Through various assignments, Chesapeake, parent company of Empress, acquired said lease. Plaintiffs argue that Defendants failed to engage in activities that would maintain the lease beyond May 31, 2010, as no drilling permit was obtained from the Office of Conservation and, thus, executed an oil, gas and mineral lease in favor of Goodrich. However, on May 28, 2010, Defendants entered the lease tract, on May 29 and 30, Defendants entered onto the tract to cut trees and stack lumber. The well was not spud until July 22, 2010. Plaintiffs alleged to the District Court that the minor work performed between May 29-30 did not constitute “operations for drilling” which would maintain the lease beyond its primary term and refused to allow Defendants to lay pipeline on an adjacent tract owned by Plaintiffs.
During the trial at the District Court level, Defendants offered testimony from various witnesses relative to its operations and activities on the leased premises. A senior landman testified that while Defendants did not obtain a drilling permit during the primary term of the lease, they did complete surveys that were vital to drilling within the primary term. A corporate representative for Defendants testified that Defendants hired a surveying company on April 26, 2010, surveyors were on the ground May 4-7 tying off corners, and were staking the pad May 26-28. A manager of gas sales for Defendants testified that he started researching production issues on May 10, and the only feasible option was to run the gas through a tract of Plaintiffs’ land adjacent to the leased premises. The District Court gave the most weight to the testimony of an expert oil and gas attorney, Philip N. Asprodites. Mr. Asprodites reviewed all of the Defendants’ activities prior to May 31, 2010, and concluded while it was not “standard practice” to engage so many activities-putting surveyors on the ground, staking the well and cutting trees to lay the road-and not obtain a drilling permit until 45 days after the end of the primary term, Defendants nonetheless “commenced drilling operations.” He further testified that it did not matter that the drilling permit was not obtained during the primary term, stressing that the lease tract posed special difficulties requiring extensive preparatory work. We note that the Judgment of the Second Circuit does not elaborate as to what may be the “special difficulties” relating the leased premises.
The District Court determined that Defendants were engaged in good faith drilling operations prior to the end of the primary term and granted a preliminary injunction against Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs appealed alleging, among other claims, Defendants failed to make a prima facia case for maintaining the lease beyond the primary term.
Engaging in Operations
Plaintiffs allege that Defendants failed to apply for a drilling permit during the primary term, surveryors failed to complete drilling surveys, no equipment was moved onsite, and no pits were dug in connection with the drilling of a well. Moreover, Plaintiffs contend that no Louisiana case has ever maintained a lease on such minimal conduct of the lessee. Defendants counter that courts have held preliminary acts began in good faith constitute commencement of drilling operations under the “engaged in operations” clause.
The Court states that the crucial question is whether Defendants’ activities on the leased premises amount to “engaged in operations for drilling” and cite Allen v Continental Oil Co.
The general rule seems to be that actual drilling is unnecessary, but that the location of wells, hauling lumber on the premises, erection of derricks, providing a water supply, moving machinery on the premises and similar acts preliminary to the beginning of the actual work of drilling, when performed with the bona fide intention to proceed thereafter with diligence toward the completion of the well, constitute a commencement or beginning of a well or drilling operations within the meaning of this clause of the lease.
If the lessee has performed such preliminary acts within the time limit, and has thereafter actually proceeded with the drilling to completion of a well, the intent with which he did the preliminary acts [is] unquestionable, and the court may rule as a matter of law that the well was commenced within the time specified by the lease.
255 So.2d at 845, quoting 2 Summers Oil & Gas, § 349, pp. 459–465.
The Court further held that where the lease provides for commencement of operations, the courts will hold that operations preliminary to the actual drilling of the well are sufficient compliance with the terms of the lease, provided, however, that such preliminary operations are continued in good faith, without undue delay, and with due diligence and dispatch, and thereafter the well is begun and completed.
Applying the above principals, the Court determined that although Defendants failed to obtain a drilling permit within the primary term, they performed sufficient preliminary acts by surveyors tying off section corners and gathering topographic data, finishing the survey and staking the site and access road, and logging the site. The Court placed much weight on Mr. Asprodites’ testimony that because of the “special difficulties” of the tract, extensive prep work was necessary, and the acts of the Defendants constitute “commenced operations.” Additionally, the Court states that Defendants spent $8.5 million to bring the well into operation, which shows that the preliminary actions were done for the purpose of completing the well. Thus, the lease was maintained.
Adjacent Land Clause
Plaintiffs also alleged that the preliminary injunction preventing Plaintiffs from interfering with pipeline installation was improper, as Defendants, assignees of the original lease, had no right to the land adjacent to the lease tract in Section 13. Plaintiffs contended that Defendants’ assignment was limited to the leased tract which covered lands located in Section 24.
The Court maintains that the original lease in favor of Pride Oil & Gas Properties expressly granted the lessee the right to conduct operations on adjacent or adjoining lands deemed necessary by the lessee to produce and transport oil, gas and other substances. While the partial assignment of the original lease to the Defendants may have been limited to Section 24 lands, the Court held that partial assignments do not divide a mineral lease under R.S. 31:310; therefore, the partial assignment did not sever the adjacent land clause contained in the original lease from the assignment. The Court held that Defendants had to right to lay pipeline through the adjacent land in Section 13.
ANDREA M. KNOUSE is an attorney with Mayhall & Blaize, LLC. Her practice consists of title examination, division order work, and litigation. Ms. Knouse joined Mayhall & Blaize in 2009 after graduating cum laude from the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at Louisiana State University. While in law school, Ms. Knouse was named to the Chancellor’s List five times and received the CALI Award twice for earning the highest grade in Tax Policy and Taxation of Capital Gains. Ms. Knouse graduated magna cum laude from Texas Christian University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology.