Justia Energy, Oil & Gas Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (“PEDF”) challenged amendments the Pennsylvania General Assembly made to the state Fiscal Code that diverted to the General Fund revenues generated from oil and gas leases on state forest and game lands. PEDF claimed the legislation was unconstitutional, violating the Environmental Rights Amendment (the “ERA”). When this case returned to the Commonwealth Court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the ERA created a constitutional public trust subject to private trust principles. Applying trust law, the Supreme Court determined that royalty revenue streams generated by the sale of gas extracted from Commonwealth lands represented the sale of trust assets and had to be returned to the corpus of the trust. To the extent that 72 P.S. sections 1602-E and 1603-E diverted royalties to the General Fund, the Court found the provisions violated the ERA. The Court lacked sufficient advocacy to determine if the remaining three revenue streams, consisting of large upfront bonus payments, yearly rental fees, and interest penalties for late payments that were allocated to the General Fund under Sections 1604-E and 1605-E, as well as Section 1912 of the Supplemental General Appropriations Act of 2009, also constituted the sale of trust assets. Thus the case was remanded to the Commonwealth Court for further proceedings. On remand, the Commonwealth Court, sitting en banc, determined that the three revenue streams did not constitute the sale of trust assets. On return to the Supreme Court, it was determined the Commonwealth Court's holding was at odds with the Supreme Court's holding before remand. Another remand was unnecessary; the Supreme Court determined the record was sufficiently developed, and based upon that record it held the incomes generated under these oil and gas leases had to be returned to the corpus. As a result, the decision of the Commonwealth Court was reversed. View "PA. Environ. Defense Fd. v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Eleanor McLaughlin acquired all oil, gas, and mineral rights underlying two parcels in Watson Township, Warren County, Pennsylvania. In 1985, she leased the oil and gas rights for each parcel to United Land Services. United Land Services in turn assigned the leases to Appellant Mitch-Well Energy, Inc. In 2008, Jack and Zureya McLaughlin sold their interest in the Warrant 3010 to Sheffield Land and Timber Company, which merged into Appellee SLT Holdings, LLC in 2012. During the initial term of the leases, Mitch-Well drilled one well on each lease parcel and produced oil in paying quantities until 1996. Mitch-Well did not drill any additional wells. After 1996, no oil was produced or royalty payments, or delay rental payments made or tendered until 2013. Nor did Mitch-Well tender any minimum payments during that period under either lease. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to consider the propriety of the Superior Court’s affirmance of the trial court’s grant of partial summary judgment in favor of Appellees in their complaint in equity against Appellant on the grounds of abandonment. Because Appellees had available to them a full and adequate remedy at law, through contract principles generally applicable to oil and gas leases, and through the specific provisions of the subject leases, the Supreme Court concluded it was error to provide recourse through application of the equitable doctrine of abandonment. View "SLT Holdings v. Mitch-Well Energy" on Justia Law

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In an appeal by allowance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the Commonwealth, by the Office of Attorney General (OAG), could bring claims under the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) on behalf of private landowners against a natural gas exploration and production company for its alleged deceptive, misleading, and unfair practices in obtaining natural gas leases from the landowners. The Supreme Court concluded the OAG could not bring claims under the UTPCPL on behalf of private landowners against Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Anadarko E&P Onshore, L.L.C. (Anadarko) for its alleged unfair and deceptive practices in acquiring natural gas leases from the landowners. Furthermore, the Court found its resolution of the first issue rendered the second issue moot. The Court affirmed the portion of the Commonwealth Court’s decision that reversed the trial court order overruling Anadarko’s preliminary objections to Count III of the OAG’s second amended complaint, and otherwise reversed the order of the Commonwealth Court. View "Com. v. Chesapeake Energy, et al (Anadarko, Aplt.)" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”)’s petition seeking review of a Commonwealth Court holding that a de facto taking of an unmined coal estate, owned by Penn Pocahontas and leased to PBS Coals, Inc. (collectively “the Coal Companies”), occurred under the Eminent Domain Code, 26 Pa.C.S. sections 101-1106 (“Code”), when PennDOT’s construction of Highway 219 on an adjoining parcel destroyed options for constructing rights-of-ways to the coal estate’s surface. In reaching that conclusion, the Commonwealth Court held that the feasibility of mining the coal, as measured by the probability of obtaining a legally required permit from the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”), was relevant only to damages. The Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s decision, agreeing with PennDOT that the legality of extracting the coal went directly to the trial court’s duty to determine whether a taking occurred. Furthermore, the Court held the Commonwealth Court erred by failing to remand the case for consideration of whether consequential damages are available to the Coal Companies. The matter was remanded to the Commonwealth Court with instructions to remand to the trial court with respect to the Coal Companies’ consequential damages claim. View "PBS Coals, et al v. PennDOT" on Justia Law

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At issue was whether the rule of capture immunized an energy developer from liability in trespass, where the developer used hydraulic fracturing on the property it owned or leased, and such activities allowed it to obtain oil or gas that migrated from beneath the surface of another person’s land. Plaintiffs’ property was adjacent to a tract of land leased by Appellant Southwestern Energy Production Company for natural gas extraction. Plaintiffs alleged that Southwestern “has and continues to extract natural gas from under the land of the Plaintiffs,” and that such extraction was “willful[], unlawful[], outrageous[] and in complete conscious disregard of the rights and title of the Plaintiffs in said land and the natural gas thereunder.” Southwestern alleged that Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by, inter alia, the rule of capture, and sought declaratory relief confirming its immunity from liability. The court of common pleas court granted Southwestern’s motion for summary judgment, denied Plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment, and denied the motion to compel as moot. The court agreed with Southwestern’s position that the rule of capture applied in the circumstances and, as such, Plaintiffs could not recover under theories of trespass or conversion even if some of the gas harvested by Southwestern had drained from under Plaintiffs’ property. The Superior Court reversed, holding that hydraulic fracturing could give rise to liability in trespass, particularly if subsurface fractures ... crossed boundary lines. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the concept that the rule of capture was inapplicable to drilling and hydraulic fracturing that occurred entirely within the developer’s property solely because drainage was the direct or indirect result of hydraulic fracturing. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court found the Superior Court panel’s opinion "to suffer from multiple infirmities," reversed and remanded with directions. View "Briggs, et al v. Southwestern Energy" on Justia Law

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The issues this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on: (1) whether the penalty imposed against HIKO Energy, LLC (HIKO) was so grossly disproportionate as to violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions; (2) whether the penalty impermissibly punished HIKO for litigating; and (3) whether the Pennsylvania Utility Commission (PUC) abused its discretion in imposing a penalty which was not supported by substantial evidence. The Supreme Court concluded HIKO waived its constitutional challenge to the civil penalty in this case, the penalty was not imposed as a punishment against HIKO for opting to litigate its case, and that the PUC’s conclusions in support of imposing the penalty were supported by substantial evidence. View "HIKO Energy, Aplt. v. PA PUC" on Justia Law

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The issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this appeal centered on whether producers of natural gas from certain vertical wells were subject to assessment of a yearly impact fee established by Chapter 23 of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act (“Act 13”). The vertical wells that at issue used the hydraulic fracturing process ("fracking") to extract natural gas through a vertical well bore from Marcellus Shale. Specifically, the issue centered on whether an impact fee would be assessed whenever a vertical well’s production exceeded an average of 90,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day for even one month of the year, or whether the well must exceed this production threshold in every month of the year, for the fee to be imposed. After careful review, the Supreme Court concluded that, under the relevant provisions of Act 13, the impact fee would be imposed on such wells if their production exceeds 90,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day for even one month of the year, as found by the Public Utility Commission (“PUC”). Therefore, the Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s order, which had reversed the PUC; the PUC's order was reinstated. View "PA Independent Oil & Gas Assoc. v. PUC" on Justia Law

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Appellee, the Marcellus Shale Coalition (“MSC”), filed in the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction a petition for review in the nature of a complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief (the “Petition”), on behalf of itself and its members. MSC challenged the validity of several regulations relating to unconventional gas well operations as governed by Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Act of 2012 (known as Act 13). MSC alleged that certain provisions were void and unenforceable for multiple reasons, including that they were vague, lacked statutory authorization, and conflicted with other regulations and statutes applicable to the industry. Furthermore, MSC averred that the rulemaking process did not comply with the Regulatory Review Act, and that the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board (the “EQB”) failed to develop criteria for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) to use in conditioning a drilling permit on relevant factors. The Commonwealth Court issued a single-judge, unpublished opinion and order, granting in part and denying in part preliminary injunctive relief. The Commonwealth Court also issued an order granting in part and denying in part MSC's Application for Expedited Special Relief. The order preliminarily enjoined DEP from implementing and enforcing certain sections of the Act. After its review of the parties' arguments on appeal of the Commonwealth Court order, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Supreme Court affirmed the grant of preliminary injunctive relief as to Counts I and II. As for Count IV, the Court affirmed the grant of relief as to Section 78a.59c, but reversed the grant of relief as to Section 78a.59b(b). Finally, the Court reversed the grant of preliminary injunctive relief as to Count V. View "Marcellus Shale Coalition v. Dept. Environmental Protection" on Justia Law

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In a discretionary appeal, the issue reviewed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court centered on whether the Commonwealth Court erred in reversing the decision of the Lycoming County Court of Common Pleas, which, in turn, had reversed the decision of the Fairfield Township Board of Supervisors (the “Board”) to allow for the drilling, construction, development and operation of unconventional natural gas wells as a conditional use in a district zoned Residential-Agricultural (“R-A”). The Supreme Court determined after review of the evidentiary record, the Board's decision was not supported by the evidence, and because the proposed use was not similar to any permitted use in the R-A district as required under the Fairfield Township Zoning Ordinance (the “Ordinance”), the Court reversed the decision of the Commonwealth Court. View "Gorsline v Bd. of Sup. of Fairfield Twp." on Justia Law

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In February 2012, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 13, a "sweeping" law regulating the oil and gas industry, which, inter alia, repealed parts of the existing Oil and Gas Act of 1984 codified in Title 58 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, and created six new chapters therein. The specific provisions of two of which, Chapters 32 and 33, were at issue in this appeal. The questions raised in this appeal involved Sections 3218.1, 3222.1, and 3241 of Chapter 32, and Sections 3305 through 3309 of Chapter 33. This appeal was consolidated from the decision of the Commonwealth Court following the Supreme Court's remand to that court to resolve open issues pursuant to a mandate in "Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," (83 A.3d 901 (2013) (“Robinson II”)). In that case, the Supreme Court struck the entirety of Sections 3215(b), 3215(d), 3303, and 3304 of Act 13 of Feb. 14, 2012, P.L. 87 (“Act 13”), as violative of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the Court enjoined the application and enforcement of Section 3215(c) and (e) and Sections 3305 through 3309, to the extent that they implemented or enforced the provisions of Act 13 which was invalidated. The Supreme Court affirmed the portion of the order the Commonwealth Court issued on remand, “Robinson III”, holding that Sections 3305 through 3309 were not severable from Sections 3303 and 3304, and the Court also upheld its conclusion that the passage of Act 13 did not violate Article III, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution (the “single subject rule”). However, because the Supreme Court concluded that Sections 3218.1, 3222.1(b)(10) and 3222.1(b)(11) contravened Article III, Section 32 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, due to the Court's determination that they constituted special legislation, the Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s order upholding these sections, and enjoined their further application and enforcement. In that regard, the Supreme Court stayed its mandate with respect to Section 3218.1 for 180 days in order to give the General Assembly sufficient time to enact remedial legislation. Further, because the Court determined that Section 3241 was unconstitutional on its face, it reversed the Commonwealth Court’s order and directed this provision be stricken as well, and enjoined from further application and enforcement. View "Robinson Twp, et al v. Public Utility Commission" on Justia Law