Southwestern Appeals “Trespass” Case to Entire PA Superior Court

Southwestern Energy has just taken the next very important step in a process that frankly has us holding our breath. Two weeks ago MDN brought you the news that the Pennsylvania Superior Court handed down a decision that has the power to greatly restrict, perhaps even stop, Marcellus drilling in PA (see PA Superior Court Overturns “Rule of Capture” for Marcellus Well and PA “Rule of Capture” Case has Power to Limit Marcellus Drilling). The issue, in brief, is that the Superior Court decision disallows using an age-old principle called the “rule of capture” when it comes to shale drilling and fracking. It opens the door to a myriad of frivolous lawsuits claiming that a fracture, a crack created during fracking, is draining gas from a neighbor’s property without justly compensating the neighbor for the gas. Southwestern successfully argued in a lower court that the odd crack here and there that may slip under a neighbor’s property is permissible. The landowner appealed the case to Superior Court and three judges heard the case. One of the Superior judges authored a decision overturning the lower court, with a second judge “joining” (agreeing with) the decision. The third judge was AWOL (“not participating”). Frankly, the stakes could not be higher for the future of Marcellus drilling in PA. Southwestern has just filed a request with the Superior Court asking that all 20 judges who sit on that court hear and consider the case, which makes sense given the gravity of the case and PA’s economic future…
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Fracking Trespass Case (Rule of Capture) Still Reverberating in PA

Last week MDN brought you the news that the Pennsylvania Superior Court handed down a decision that has the power to greatly restrict, perhaps even stop, Marcellus drilling in PA (see PA Superior Court Overturns “Rule of Capture” for Marcellus Well and PA “Rule of Capture” Case has Power to Limit Marcellus Drilling). The issue, in brief, is that last week’s Superior Court decision disallows using an age-old principle called the “rule of capture” when it comes to shale drilling and fracking. It opens the door to a myriad of frivolous lawsuits claiming that a fracture, a crack created during fracking, is draining gas from a neighbor’s property without justly compensating the neighbor for the gas. Was the court’s decision a big deal? Or was is not such a big deal? We’ve seen stories appear every day since the decision, some indicating the decision is monumental in scope and impact–others saying meh, not so big after all. Which is it? We still believe the issue turns on how far cracks extend out from a wellbore during fracking–and whether you can accurately measure the distance of such fractures. If the cracks extend just a few hundred feet, the court decision is not a big deal. Most drillers stay at least 350 feet from the boundary line when drilling a well–meaning the cracks that drain gas do not extend to neighboring properties. However, if the cracks, the fractures, extend out more than a few hundred feet, say more than 300 feet, that’s a problem. Southwestern Energy responded in the lawsuit that IF their cracks had intruded (trespassed) under the boundary line, it would fall under “rule of capture”–the legal principle of he who gets there first, wins. The court ruled otherwise. We’re still haunted by the definition used (and accepted) in the lawsuit that says fracking fluid and sand can travel up to 3,000 feet…
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PA “Rule of Capture” Case has Power to Limit Marcellus Drilling

As we indicated in our post yesterday, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has handed down a decision that has the power to greatly restrict, even stop, Marcellus drilling in PA (see PA Superior Court Overturns “Rule of Capture” for Marcellus Well). This is a legal issue–and MDN is not written by a lawyer. Hence our earlier misreading of the importance and facts in the Superior Court decision. The issue, in brief, is that Monday’s court decision disallows using an age-old principle called the rule of capture, which we previously described. The rule of capture works for conventional drilling where underground deposits of oil and gas are in pools and the pool may exist underneath multiple surface property owners. Whoever gets there first and sucks the oil/gas out, wins. That’s the rule of capture in a nutshell. And it makes sense. You can’t be held responsible for oil and gas moving from one place to another as it’s extracted. And who knows how much of the pool is located under your property, or your neighbor’s property? The Superior Court justices ruled that the rule of capture doesn’t work for hydraulic fracturing because gas (and oil) trapped in shale rock does not freely move from one place to another as it does in a pool. The judges say the gas would “stay forever” where it is without fracking. In the case of Briggs v. Southwestern Energy, the Briggs family (in Susquehanna County, PA) alleges that when Southwestern drilled and fracked on the Briggs’ neighbor, the fracking was done close enough to their property that some of the gas located under their property (unleased) was released and extracted through the Southwestern well–a “trepass.” Southwestern countered that IF such a “trespass” took place, it falls under the rule of capture. The ultimate issue boils down to this: How far do fractures extend from a lateral well? An expert energy attorney told MDN off the record that Monday’s decision “could change the entire Pennsylvania shale industry” in two important ways…
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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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Southwestern 2017: $3.5B Turnaround, Shopping Fayetteville Assets

Late last week Southwestern Energy, one of the biggest drillers in the Marcellus (4th largest natgas producer in the country), issued its fourth quarter and full year 2017 update. Southwestern drills in two plays: The Marcellus (i.e. Appalachia), and the Fayetteville (in Arkansas). The big news coming from last week’s update is that Southwestern signaled it wants to sell some–or all–of its “underperforming” Fayetteville assets, and use the money to pay down debt and drill more in the northeast. Largely on the back of prolific production in the Marcellus, Southwestern had a dramatic financial turnaround last year. In 2016, Southwestern lost $2.75 billion. In 2017, the company made $815 million in profit. That’s a swing of $3.5 billion in a single year!…
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Southwestern 2018: Sell Fayetteville Assets, Invest in Marcellus

Yesterday Southwestern Energy issued two announcements: One covers highlights of company activity and performance in 2017 with “guidance” predictions for 2018; the second is about “repositioning” the company’s “portfolio.” We’ll tackle the second one first. Southwestern’s announcement says (in obfuscated language), that they’re putting their considerable Fayetteville Shale assets up for sale, so the company can further concentrate its time, talent and money on developing their Marcellus Shale assets. We consider that big news. Southwestern drills in two shale plays: the Marcellus (in PA and WV), and the Fayetteville (in Arkansas). Acreage-wise, Southwestern owns more acreage in the Fayetteville than in the Marcellus–over 918,000 acres in Arkansas vs. 567,000 in PA/WV. They plan to use the money from a Fayetteville sale (rumored to be on the order of $2 billion) to pay down debt and invest in more Marcellus drilling. It will make Southwestern, headquartered in Houston, TX, a pure play driller in the northeast. As for 2017, Southwestern shared just a few high level numbers (the full report is due out March 1). The stat that caught our eye is Southwestern’s Marcellus production. At the end of 2017, Marcellus production averaged 2.35 billion cubic feet equivalent per day (Bcfe/d). That’s 40% higher than at the end of 2016! What’s ahead in 2018? Southwestern says they will spend $1.15-$1.25 billion this year–and every single penny will come from its own cash flow, no new borrowing or stock sales. Southwestern also said its operations in northeastern PA will, for the first time (ever) turn a true profit, somewhere around $150 million for the year. Here’s the latest on a big, and very important, Marcellus driller…
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Clash of the Titans: PA Marcellus Gas Competes with TX Permian

Last week MDN editor Jim Willis attended Hart Energy’s Marcellus-Utica Midstream conference in Pittsburgh (a series of stories are coming this week from that event). One of the stray comments Jim heard at the event was this: The chief rival or competitor to the Marcellus with respect to natural gas production is not, as you might assume (we sure did) the Haynesville Shale in Louisiana. No. The chief competitor, producing more and more volumes of natgas, is…the Permian! That’s right, an oil play! Why? When you drill for oil, you get other hydrocarbons out of the ground along with the oil. Primarily methane, or natural gas. It’s called “associated gas.” Even though most of what comes out of a Permian well is oil and not gas, because there are so darned many oil wells in the Permian (with more being drilled all the time), the total volume of gas coming from the Permian is going up, dramatically. The problem is, some Marcellus/Utica gas heads to the Gulf Coast to be used by petrochemical companies or to be exported. However, gas produced right there in the region is less expensive to get to market (shorter distance), so that Permian-sourced gas is competing, and increasingly crowding out, Marcellus/Utica gas. Investors have noticed and have, in a sense, “punished” some of the biggest of the big Marcellus/Utica producers by selling their shares, leading to a loss in share value. Among the hardest hit have been Southwestern Energy, Gulfport Energy, and Range Resources. The stock price for those three companies is down, since Jan. 1st, 33%, 30% and 25% respectively. A Bloomberg article says the stocks for those companies have been “mauled.” Indeed. Here’s some insight into how the Marcellus/Utica is increasingly going up against the oil giant Permian Basin, sometimes getting mauled…
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NatGas, Oil Industry Partnership to Accelerate Methane Reductions

Yesterday America’s natural gas and oil industry announced “a landmark partnership”–called the Environmental Partnership–to “accelerate improvements to environmental performance in operations across the country.” How will they do that? The first area of focus will be to reduce methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. The Environmental Partnership includes 26 natural gas and oil producers, including several major Marcellus/Utica drillers (Chesapeake Energy, Cabot Oil & Gas, Chevron and Southwestern Energy). The list of 26 produce a “significant portion” of American energy resources–we’d peg it at around 80% of all production. The participating companies (full list below) will begin implementing the voluntary program starting January 1, 2018. Did you get that? It’s VOLUNTARY. Yet they will do it and they will voluntarily hold themselves and each other accountable–because they are good corporate citizens and (gasp) actually care about the environment. They don’t need the jackboot of government to force them to do it. Here’s how profoundly biased mainstream media reports it: Oil Firms Pledge to Plug Methane Leaks in Bid to Burnish Image (Bloomberg News). Yep, according to the anti-everything people, these companies are only doing it to “burnish” their image. They don’t really care about the environment. They’re evil, nasty fossil fuel companies (icky). MDN readers know differently. These companies are respectable, providing jobs and investment in local communities AND protecting the environment in those same communities–where they live. The other side? Groups like the Sierra Club destroy jobs in the name of “protecting” Mom Earth…
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Southwestern 3Q17: Huge Swing to Profit, Drilled 43 Marc Wells

Southwestern Energy, one of the biggest drillers in the Marcellus/Utica, delivered their third quarter 2017 update on Friday. Financially speaking the company displayed a remarkable turnaround. In 3Q15 Southwestern lost $1.8 billion! In 3Q16 Southwestern lost $735 million–trimming loses in half. In 3Q17, the company made a profit of $43 million, a swing of more than 3/4 of a billion dollars year over year and a swing of nearly $2 billion if you go back to 2015. Production in the Marcellus/Utica soared in 3Q17, up 26% over last year–to 153 billion cubic feet equivalent (Bcfe). That works out to 1.7 Bcfe per day. Southwestern has a lot of irons in the fire. They’ve drilled their second Utica well (happy with the results). They’re actively drilling in northeast PA, southwest PA and West Virginia. Overall, across the entire Marcellus/Utica patch, Southwestern drilled 43 wells, completed 25 wells and brought online into production 33 wells–in the past three months. The company also began work on a water infrastructure project–in the Panhandle area of West Virginia. The water project is expected to reduce well completion costs by $500,000 per well beginning in late 2018, and lower Southwestern’s break-even gas price by $0.25 per Mcfe. Yeah, a lot of irons. And they own a lot of acreage throughout the play. But the company does a good job in juggling all of the competing priorities. Below is the full 3Q17 update, followed by comments from Southwestern’s senior VP of E&P operations, John Bergeron…
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Southwestern Energy Offers $5/Acre for Seismic Testing in WV

In 2014, Southwestern Energy cut a massive deal to buy 413,000 Marcellus/Utica acres from Chesapeake Energy, most of it in northern West Virginia, for $5.375 billion (see Chesapeake Sells Close to 25% of Marcellus/Utica Operation). Southwestern has done some drilling on that acreage since, but all the signs are now visible that the company intends to really ramp up their WV drilling program. In August, Southwestern nailed down some missing acreage in the Wheeling area by leasing 66 acres from the Wheeling Park School District for $231,000 (see Wheeling Park HS Signs Lease with Southwestern for $3500/Acre). Just last week we reported that midstream giant Williams has cut a deal with Southwestern to provide gathering and processing for over 200,000 acres in Marshall and Wetzel counties (see Williams Launches Major WV Expansion to Serve Southwestern Energy). And now, further evidence: A contractor working for Southwestern plans to begin seismic testing covering 260 square miles–stretching from Donegal (Westmoreland County), PA through northern WV all the way to Shadyside (Belmont County), OH–next year. The contractor, in speaking with members of the Bethlehem Village Council (Wheeling, WV area), said Southwestern is offering the “standard” price of $5 per acre for seismic testing…
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Williams Launches Major WV Expansion to Serve Southwestern Energy

Yesterday Williams announced a new, major deal with Southwestern Energy to expand its network of gathering pipelines and processing facilities in West Virginia, to serve Southwestern’s increasingly aggressive drilling program in the state. Williams will expand its its Oak Grove processing plant to handle extra wet gas that will flow into it from Southwestern’s 135,000-acre wet gas (i.e. NGL) drilling program in Marshall and Wetzel counties. Southwestern targets wet gas in the Marcellus and Upper Devonian in those two counties. The expansion will give the Oak Grove plant the capability to process an additional 1.8 billion cubic feet per day of wet gas. But wet gas isn’t the only focus. Williams is also expanding its pipeline network to an additional 71,500 dry gas acres, again in Marshall and Wetzel counties, targeting Southwestern’s dry gas Utica program. In the same announcement, almost as an afterthought (but for us is a really big deal), Williams announced it will connect its system to Columbia Pipeline’s (now TransCanada) Leach XPress and Mountaineer XPress pipelines, “to boost market access and diversify gas pricing opportunities.” Leach XPress, which is part of a project including Rayne XPress, will send gas all the way to the Gulf Coast (see Columbia Gas: $1.75B for 2 Projects to Send Marcellus Gas to Gulf). Leach XPress began construction earlier this year. Mountaineer XPress will send gas to Leach, Kentucky (as will Leach Xpress), and from there on to a variety of other markets in the Midwest and South–as well as the Gulf Coast (see Details on Columbia Pipeline Mountaineer XPress Pipeline Project). Mountaineer Xpress received a favorable final environmental impact state from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July of this year, but is still waiting on other permits before it begins construction. Here’s the news about Williams expanding in the Mountain State…
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Southwestern Energy Reduces Methane Leaks, WITHOUT Onerous Regs

The debate rages, both nationally and on the state level (in Pennsylvania, anyway) about the best way to reduce fugitive methane. That is, to stop methane from leaking out of pipes and into the atmosphere where it supposedly contributes to mythical man-made global warming. Leaving aside the nonsensical global warming stuff, it’s in the best interests of any producer (or pipeline company) to ensure no methane molecules leak out of the system. It’s the stuff they extract and sell! They don’t want their inventory flying away into heaven. The debate is how best to ensure less methane leaks. On one side you have the typical Big Government types that want to regulate everything, down to the type of equipment you use to detect leaks and the methods for fixing it. We have nothing against common sense regulations, but as everyone knows, government tends to screw things up, rather than fix things. On the other side you have drillers and midstream companies who content “just give us a standard and let us figure out how best to meet that standard.” Case in point is Southwestern Energy. Southwestern launched a leak detection and fixing program five years ago–and has dramatically cut the amount of methane leaking from its operations. Southwestern, and others, show us the way it should be done, WITHOUT needing onerous regulations from the federal government or from the regulation-happy PA Gov. Tom Wolf…
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Top 10 Drillers in All of PA, by Number of Permits Issued

Yesterday we brought you the “Top 10” drillers in southwestern Pennsylvania, as ranked by the number of permits issued (see Top 10 Drillers in SWPA, by Number of Permits Issued). Today we’re bringing you the Top 10 list of drillers by number of permits issued for the entire state of PA. As you might imagine, the picture statewide is quite a bit different from looking at only SWPA. Yes, some of the same companies are in both lists–but only three are in both lists (Range Resources, EQT and Rice Energy). Our Top 10 list is extracted from a list prepared by the (must read) Pittsburgh Business Times…
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Southwestern Energy Floats $1.15B in New IOUs to Pay Off Old IOUs

In a pair of announcements made this morning, major Marcellus/Utica driller Southwestern Energy said they are floating $1.15 billion of new IOUs (i.e. “notes”) that are unsecured and due to be repaid in 2026 and 2027. Part of the money will be used to pay off a 2015 loan for $327 million. It appears another part will be used to pay off up to $800 million of notes (a buyback or repurchase of the notes) due in 2020, 2022, and 2025. That is, Southwestern is swapping one form of debt for another. We’ve often observed this behavior in the energy industry–issuing new debt to pay off old debt. Bit of a shell game in our book, but then we’re not high finance people. Apparently this is not an unusual circumstance with large corporations, and nothing to be alarmed about…
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M-U’s Biggest Drillers Increase NGL Production for Extra Money

When a driller sinks a hole in the ground looking for one hydrocarbon–like natural gas–other hydrocarbons also come out of the ground. Sometimes its oil. Sometimes condensate. Sometimes natural gas liquids (NGLs), including ethane, propane, butane, pentane, etc. In northeast and central Pennsylvania where the Marcellus Shale is prolific, most of what comes out of the ground is just methane–or natural gas. However, in the southwestern portion of PA, and in the northern panhandle of WV and on into eastern OH, it’s a different story. They are considered “wet gas” areas because (depending on the county) the wells are prolific NGL producers. Most NGLs, like propane, fetch much higher prices than plain old methane. Typically ethane is the NGL that mostly comes out of the ground, but for many drillers ethane can’t (yet) be sold, so it’s considered a “waste” product, mixed into the methane stream to get rid of it. But that’s changing. There are now pipelines to carry ethane to facilities in both Philadelphia and to a cracker plant in Canada. There’s even a pipeline for ethane (and other NGLs) that goes all the way to the Gulf Coast (ATEX, Appalachia to Texas). Some of the largest Marcellus/Utica drillers now have markets for their NGLs, so they are ramping up production and selling more NGLs. In fact, six of the eight largest M-U drillers increased their NGL production in the second quarter of 2017 compared to 2Q16. Which six increased, and which two decreased NGL production last quarter?…
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Wheeling Park HS Signs Lease with Southwestern for $3500/Acre

It’s not often these days we come across a story that mentions a new lease signed, and the amount of money paid as a signing bonus. Such is the case in Ohio County, WV. The Wheeling Park High School has just signed a lease with Southwestern Energy for $3,500 per acre for 66 acres–giving the school district $231,000 of newly found revenue, thanks to the Marcellus/Utica industry. No drilling equipment will be placed on or near school property. When the drilling eventually happens UNDER the school, and the wells begin to flow, Wheeling Park High School will then get more revenue–18% royalties on all gas produced…
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