PA Superior Court Overturns “Rule of Capture” for Marcellus Well

STOP PRESS: Shortly after this post was published, a MDN reader (an energy attorney) called us to alert us that our initial take on this case is not right. The case is NOT about a company stretching a lateral too far so that it trespasses under an adjoining property. Instead, the case is about the “zone of fracking”–that is, that fracking, by its nature, creates cracks that may open up and drain some of the gas under a neighboring property–even though the fracking was done properly within the boundaries of the leased property. The case (ominously) says that fracking itself can cause a trespass. Our attorney friend said this case has the potential to negatively affect Marcellus drilling in PA–in a BIG way. We will write another post on this issue tomorrow. In the meantime, just be aware that our initial take below is not correct. – Jim Willis, Editor

The Pennsylvania Superior Court handed down an important decision yesterday that impacts both Marcellus landowners and drillers. The decision removes “rule of capture” as a way for shale drillers to drill under adjoining neighbors who haven’t specifically leased their property for drilling. The rule of capture came about with conventional (vertical only) drilling, cases in which a pool of oil or natural gas exists that runs underneath the property owned by multiple surface owners (see the image to the left). The rule of capture principle says “the first person to capture a natural resource owns that resource.” If you put a well or two or three on your property to extract the oil/gas, if it flows from the neighbor’s side to your side and up the well, it’s yours. Same for your neighbor. He/she can grab the oil and gas under your property if the pool exists under both. The principle originated in England (it’s a very old principle). However, Southwestern Energy tried to use the rule of capture principle to drill under property not leased for drilling that sits next to property that is leased–claiming the rule of capture. The molecules in shale are a whole other story than molecules sitting in a common pool. That’s what the Superiors ruled. Southwestern (and by extension, other Marcellus drillers) can’t simply extend a lateral well a few hundred feet under an un-leased neighbor, which certainly makes sense to us…

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