Daily Archives: June 22, 2012

Shale Gas Boom: Hydraulic Fracturing and Potential Legal Claims

Joshua W. Mermis
Friday, June 22, 2012

A “gas rush” is revitalizing the domestic petroleum exploration industry, and the legal ramifications could be felt for decades. Through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), petroleum companies access once cost prohibitive shale gas formations by creating fractures in underground rock formations, thereby facilitating oil or gas production by providing pathways for oil or gas to flow to the well. These pathways are commonly referred to as the “fractures.” The legal consequences of fracking could impact more than half of the Lower 48 states.

Background of Hydraulic Fracturing

The basic technique of fracking is not new. In fact, fracking has been used in wells since the late 1940s. The first commercial fracking job took place in 1949 in Velma, Oklahoma, however, sequestered layers of shale gas were inaccessible until 1985, when pioneers such as Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation combined fracking with a newer technology called directional, or horizontal drilling in the Austin Chalk. Directional drilling gave producers access to the shale gas because it allowed them to turn a downward- plodding drill bit as much as 90 degrees and continue drilling within the layer for thousands of additional feet. The positive results were soon transferred to the Barnett Shale in North Texas. To date, more than one million wells have been fractured.
The “hottest” shale plays are as follows:

  • Bakken (Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota)
  • Barnett Shale (Texas)
  • Eagle Ford (Texas)
  • Haynesville (Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas)
  • Marcellus Shale (New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia)
  • Utica (Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia)

Confirmed and/or prospective shale plays are also found in Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming. Shale plays have been confirmed in countries around the world, but the US is the leader in shale gas exploration.

More Money, More Problems

The new application of an old technology made it possible to profitably produce oil and gas from shale formations. Domestic and international companies quickly rushed to capitalize on the large reservoirs of shale gas. But unlike the preceding decades, where new oil and gas exploration had occurred offshore and in deepwater, oil and gas drilling started to occur in areas that were not accustomed to oil and gas activity. Overnight ranchers became millionaires as landmen leased large swaths of property to drill. The media started reporting about enormous domestic supplies of oil and gas that could be profitably produced from shale formations and politicians touted energy independence that could alleviate the country’s demand for foreign reserves. But with the increased attention came increased scrutiny.

Environmental groups have criticized the industry for fracking. The chief concern is that fracking will contamination of drinking water. Movies such as “Gasland” and “Gasland 2” fueled the public’s concerns that the drilling caused polluted water wells and flammable kitchen faucets. Additionally, the industry received criticism for the engineering process that involved high-rate, high-pressure injections of large volumes of water and some chemicals into a well to facilitate the fracking. The EPA and state regulatory bodies have become involved in the discussion and new regulations are likely to follow. In the meantime, some lawsuits have already been filed.

Pending Hydraulic Fracturing Litigation

Plaintiffs have filed approximately forty shale-related lawsuits across the country. These lawsuits include: (1) tort lawsuits; (2) environmental lawsuits; or (3) industry lawsuits. As the shale boom accelerates more suits are anticipated.

1. Tort Lawsuits

Tort lawsuits have been brought by individuals and as class actions. Typically the claimants assert claims for trespass, nuisance, negligence and strict liability. Their complaints involve excessive noise, increased seismic activity, environmental contamination (air, soil and groundwater), diminution in property value, death of livestock/animals, mental anguish and emotional distress. The plaintiffs seek actual damages and, in some instances, injunctive relief. A few parties have even sought the establishment of a medical monitoring fund. The majority of these lawsuits have been filed in Texas, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. The first wave of lawsuits has established new law in the respective jurisdictions as the appellate courts weigh in with published opinions on issues that range from oil and gas lease forfeiture, consequences of forged contracts and contract formation.

2. Environmental Lawsuits

Environmental organizations and some citizen groups are seeking to enforce environmental laws and regulations in an effort to protect the environment and the public from what the litigants perceive to be negative consequences of fracking. In some instances they are even seeking to restrict the use of hydraulic fracking until it is proven to be environmentally safe. A popular target among these litigants is federal and state regulatory bodies, such as the EPA, and federal statutes, such as the Clean Air Act.

3. Industry Lawsuits

The final category of lawsuits includes those brought by the industry against the government. Claimants have sought to challenge federal, state and local government actions that have impeded the industry’s ability to drill.

Fracking Lawsuits 2.0 – Transportation, Construction, Personal Injury and Beyond

The survey of current fracking lawsuits does not take into account the claims that will spin out of the new shale plays. In fact, the engineering and logistical side of the fracking process – not fracking itself – will lead to many more attendant claims.

  • Transportation: The survey of current fracking lawsuits does not take into account the claims that will spin out of the new shale plays. In fact, the engineering and logistical side of the fracking process – not fracking itself – will lead to many more attendant claims.
  • Commercial: Lessor involved in mineral disputes will lead to commercial claims. Many lessors will feel they were shorted, or want a better deal as those now positioned to lease their rights sign a more lucrative mineral-rights lease. Company-to-company disputes will also rise as the price of natural gas fluctuates.
  • Construction: The contractors and design professionals building the midstream facilities, among others, will lead to construction-defect and delay claims. Many states have recently adopted anti-indemnity statutes that will impact claims that arise during construction of midstream facilities, pipelines and other infrastructure-related construction projects.
  • Insurance: Coverage issues will arise as parties file first- and third-party claims for myriad reasons. Issues including comparative indemnity agreements, flow-through indemnity and additional insured endorsements, among others, will need to be analyzed.
  • Personal Injury: Additional workers drilling and working the wells will lead to an increase in personal injury and work-place accident claims. Many of the shale plays are located in what have traditionally been considered “plaintiff friendly” venues. A claim in Pennsylvania will have a different value than one located in Webb County, Texas.
  • Product Liability: The products and chemicals used to drill and extract the oil and gas will lead to product liability claims involving both personal and property damage. The BP Deep Water Horizon well-blowout in the Gulf of Mexico will not be lost on those involved in domestic oil and gas exploration.

How To Reduce Future Fracking Litigation Risk?

Parties can act now to discourage litigation or better position themselves in the event they are named in a suit.

1. Institute electronic records protocol

The proliferation of email and increased retention and archival capabilities means that emails never die. A potential defendant would be well served with a protocol in place that outlines to its employees what are acceptable electronic communications.

2. Strictly comply with fracking fluid disclosures

For those parties who could be exposed to claims regarding the fluids used during drilling, it is important that they minimize the public’s suspicion that they are withholding information about the fluids. The best way to neutralize that misconception is to strictly comply with the state-mandated disclosure rules where applicable. It may even behoove them to voluntarily disclose the fluids’ contents through the
companies’ websites.

3. Be prepared for a fire-drill

A party must be ready to quickly assert its position when a claim is brought. The best way to do so is to track current litigation. Following the cases will provide the company a preview as to what claims it may be subject to, and it also allows them to evaluate defenses. It may also enable the company to insulate itself from suit by avoiding certain actions. Along those same lines, knowing the facts, documents, emails, fact witnesses and expert witnesses will work to a party’s advantage. Some industry leaders have proactively retained experts even though they have not been sued.

4. Know your neighbors

Parties should view their neighbors as allies and potential jurors. To that end, it makes sense to open a dialogue about fracking with the regulators on a local, state and federal level. It would also benefit the parties to engage the community and publicize information about the benefits associated with fracking, e.g., jobs, lower energy prices, cleaner energy, energy independence, etc. Certain midstream players have rolled out a public education campaigns aimed at that very goal.

Conclusion

Articles on shale gas and fracking adorn the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. 60 Minutes runs stories on shale-gas drilling and the faux pundit Stephen Colbert discusses fracking’s impact on his tongue-and-cheek news show. The promise of profits, domestic jobs and energy independence has the country talking about the gas shale plays that dot the landscape. Fracking and all that it encompasses will serve as the backdrop for a variety of legal issues during the foreseeable future.

Joshua W. Mermis is a partner at Johnson, Trent, West & Taylor in Houston, Texas, where he primarily practices in construction and energy litigation. He received his B.A. from the University of Kansas and J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law. This article previously appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of USLAW magazine.

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Chevron Spends USD 1 Billion on Pacific Sharav Drillship Contract (USA)

Pacific Drilling S.A. announced today that its ultra-deepwater drillship the Pacific Sharav has been awarded a five-year contract by Chevron U.S.A. Inc. for operations in the United States Gulf of Mexico.

Estimated maximum contract revenue, including mobilization and client requested modifications, is expected to be approximately $1,076 million, bringing Pacific Drilling’s total contract backlog as of June 22, 2012, to approximately $3.2 billion.

“We are proud to announce the expansion of our relationship with Chevron to include a third drillship. This contract exemplifies our strategic commitment to building strong customer relationships and allows us to leverage the operations support infrastructure which we have already developed in the region.”

Pacific Drilling CEO Chris Beckett stated, “We are proud to announce the expansion of our relationship with Chevron to include a third drillship. This contract exemplifies our strategic commitment to building strong customer relationships and allows us to leverage the operations support infrastructure which we have already developed in the region.”

Pacific Sharav is scheduled for delivery by Samsung Heavy Industries in Korea in the fourth quarter of 2013, upon completion of construction and client requested modifications. The drillship will be capable of operating in water depths of up to 12,000 feet and drilling wells up to 40,000 feet deep.

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USA: Imperial Presidency

Matthew Spalding, Ph.D.
June 22, 2012 at 9:06 am

The United States was born when rebellious colonists declared their independence from an imperial ruler who had vastly overstepped his bounds. “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” they wrote in their Declaration of Independence.

Today’s presidency lacks the regal air of George III. But imperialism is back, in a big way.

Last week, the Obama Administration’s Department of Homeland Security issued a memorandum instructing U.S. immigration officials to use their “prosecutorial discretion” to create a policy scheme contrary to existing law, designed to implement legislation that Congress hasn’t passed.

The President himself has admitted he doesn’t have the authority to do this. “The idea of doing things on my own is very tempting, I promise you, not just on immigration reform. But that’s not how our system works,” he told Hispanic activists last year. “That’s not how our democracy functions.”

Indeed.

We can now see before us a persistent pattern of disregard for the powers of the legislative branch in favor of administrative decision-making without—and often in spite of—congressional action.  This violates the spirit—and potentially the letter—of the Constitution’s separation of the legislative and executive powers of Congress and the President.

Examples abound:

  • Even though the Democrat-controlled Senate rejected the President’s cap-and-trade plan, his Environmental Protection Agency classified carbon dioxide, the compound that sustains vegetative life, as a pollutant so that it could regulate it under the Clean Air Act.
  • After the Employee Free Choice Act—designed to bolster labor unions’ dwindling membership rolls—was defeated by Congress, the National Labor Relations Board announced a rule that would implement “snap elections” for union representation, limiting employers’ abilities to make their case to workers and virtually guaranteeing a higher rate of unionization at the expense of workplace democracy.
  • After an Internet regulation proposal failed to make it through Congress, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it would regulate the Web anyway, even despite a federal court’s ruling that it had no authority to do so.
  • Although Congress consistently has barred the Department of Education from getting involved in curriculum matters, the Administration has offered waivers for the No Child Left Behind law in exchange for states adopting national education standards, all without congressional authorization.

Likewise, the Administration has often simply refused to enforce laws duly enacted by Congress:

  • Since it objects to existing federal immigration laws, the Administration has decided to apply those laws selectively and actively prevent the state (like Arizona) from enforcing those laws themselves.
  • Rather than push Congress to repeal federal laws against marijuana use, the Department of Justice (DOJ) simply decided it would no longer enforce those laws.
  • DOJ also has announced that it would stop enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act or defending it from legal challenge rather than seeking legislative recourse.

On Tuesday, the President invoked executive privilege to avoid handing over some 1,300 documents in an ongoing Congressional investigation.  The Supreme Court has held that executive privilege cannot be invoked to shield wrongdoing.  Is that what’s happening in this case? “Congress needs to get to the bottom of that question to prevent an illegal invocation of executive privilege and further abuses of power. That will require an index of the withheld documents and an explanation of why each of them is covered by executive privilege—and more,” Heritage legal scholar Todd Gaziano writes.

Earlier this year the President crossed the threshold of constitutionality when he gave “recess appointments” to four officials who were subject to Senate confirmation, even though the Senate wasn’t in recess. Gaziano wrote at the time that such appointments “would render the Senate’s advice and consent role to normal appointments almost meaningless. It is a grave constitutional wrong.”

There is no telling where such disregard may go next, but the trend is clear, and it leads further and further away from the constitutional rule of law.

The President has unique and powerful responsibilities in our constitutional system as chief executive officer, head of state, and commander in chief. Those powers do not include the authority to make laws or to decide which laws to enforce and which to ignore. The President – like judges or Members of Congress – takes an oath to uphold the Constitution in carrying out the responsibilities of his office.

Indeed, the President takes a unique oath, pledging he “shall faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” We don’t need a new Declaration of Independence, but we do need a President who will defend and vigorously exert his or her legitimate powers, recognizing that those powers are not arbitrary or unlimited.

Dr. Matthew Spalding is the Vice President for American Studies and Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation. He is also the author of We Still Hold These Truths.

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