WHO WINS WHEN FEDERAL MINERAL LESSEES COLLIDE WITHIN THE SAME ACREAGE?

Posted on June 14, 2019 by Tom Sansonetti

Berenergy Inc. has been operating seven oil and gas wells on three federal leases in the Powder River Basin area of Wyoming since the 1960s.  Peabody Energy has been strip mining coal on multiple federal leases in the same area since the 1970’s. Further background of this conflict is found in my previous post.

Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine is the largest coal mine in the United States with a mine plan that requires it to move in a south-to-north direction over several decades.  The mine has advanced to within a quarter mile of the Berenergy wells.  The wells are spaced as to form a picket-fence like barrier to the mine’s progress.

Berenergy’s well bores extend several thousand feet below the surface.  Peabody’s coal reserves are only 850 feet under the surface.  In order to mine through, Peabody would have to pull the piping and plug each of the well holes.

After passing through the well sites, Peabody could re-drill and replace the piping to allow the oil and gas production to continue. The cost to Peabody would be approximately $500,000. Mining through the well sites would take approximately four years. The cost to Peabody of moving the mining machinery around the seven wells would be approximately $180 million. 

The value of the 91 million tons of coal under or near the wells at current prices is $1 billion. Because of the mine plan’s northerly direction and the mammoth size of the operations, the cost of returning to the bypassed coal years later would be prohibitive. Thus, the coal would remain in place if bypassed.

Peabody offered to purchase the Berenergy wells for their appraised price of $477,000. Berenergy rejected the offer, instead requesting a much larger sum in order to “get out of the way.” Peabody refused to pay the requested amount and both Peabody and Berenergy approached the BLM, as the common lessor, to seek a resolution of the standoff.

As a valid lessee in good standing, Berenergy argued that its leases were “first in time” giving them the “first in right” to continue producing until the wells run dry. Berenergy pointed out that Peabody leased its coal with full knowledge of the existence of the wells and should have to wait to mine unless willing to meet Berenergy’s monetary demands. Berenergy petitioned the BLM to suspend Peabody’s leases.

As a valid lessee in good standing, Peabody argued that the “first in time” theory was not embodied in either statutes or regulations and without statutory guidance or legal precedent the BLM should adopt a “doctrine of accommodation” that would permit maximum recovery of both the oil and the coal. Peabody petitioned the BLM to suspend Berenergy’s leases so it could mine through.

On August 17, 2018, the BLM Wyoming State Director issued a decision allowing Peabody to mine through the well areas based on the provisions of Section 209 of the Mineral Leasing Act. This provision allows the Secretary of the Interior to suspend mineral leases in order to conserve natural resources.

Peabody immediately began pulling and plugging the well closest to its operations. Berenergy obtained a temporary restraining order in Wyoming federal district court and appealed the BLM decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals. The IBLA ruled against Berenergy’s motion for stay of the BLM order and Peabody demanded that Berenergy post a multi-million-dollar bond in order to continue the litigation before the IBLA. Berenergy was not able to post the bond and dismissed its IBLA appeal, opting to return to the Wyoming federal district court for resolution of its “first in time” claim naming the BLM as the defendant. Peabody intervened in the case to support the BLM decision.

After lengthy briefing and an oral argument, Wyoming District Judge Scott Skavdahl ruled on May 13, 2019 in favor of the BLM and Peabody. The court ruled that the MLA’s Section 209 permitted the BLM to suspend leases in the name of the conservation of natural resources when two valid federal leases developed a conflict over acreage where the minerals in question could not be simultaneously produced. Given the vast disparity between the value of the remaining oil and gas reserves versus the coal reserves to be bypassed, the court found that the BLM’s use of a comparative valuation standard to aid in its decision-making was reasonable. The court noted that it could not find regulatory authority on “first in time” that contradicted the language in Section 209.

On June 11, Berenergy filed its appeal in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Stay tuned.



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