Oil and Gas
The Ohio House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill today that should make it easier to plug unused oil and gas wells in Ohio. The legislation also proposes a significant increase in the amount of funds available for doing so, from 14% to 45% of the state’s Oil and Gas Well Fund.
Under the proposed law, a landowner would be able to report an idle and orphaned well to the Chief of the Division of Oil and Gas Resources, who must inspect the well within 30 days and classify the well as distressed high priority, moderate medium priority or maintenance low priority for purposes of sealing the well or restoring the land surface at the well site. The legislation also lightens several procedures the Chief currently must follow before plugging a well, such as determining ownership and legal interests in the well, the oil and gas lease related to the well, and any equipment at the well. The Chief would not be required to search beyond 40 years to determine ownership and legal interests. Several procedures regarding the contracts entered into for restoration or plugging of a well would also change.
House Bill 225, proposed by Rep. Andy Thompson (R-Marietta) now goes to the Ohio Senate for consideration. Read more about the bill here.
Longstanding complaints against Rover Pipeline's environmental practices while constructing an interstate natural gas pipeline across Ohio recently culminated in a lawsuit against the company. Attorney General Mike Dewine filed the suit in Stark County on behalf of the Ohio EPA, alleging that Rover illegally discharged drilling fluids, sediment-laden storm water and several million gallons of drilling fluids into Ohio waters, including wetlands in Stark County. The state seeks a court order requiring Rover to apply for state permits, comply with environmental plans approved and ordered by the Ohio EPA, and pay civil penalties of $10,000 per day for each violation.
To read more about the state's claims visit this post by our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center.
Written by Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
Several pipeline projects are crisscrossing the state. While some landowners are just seeing equipment and workers show up on their property, others are seeing pipelines be buried and the land being reclaimed. Some Ohio landowners question whether pipelines on their property and reclamation of the land are being carried out properly.
Safety Issues Related to Construction of Pipelines
In certain circumstances, landowners with completed pipelines on their property can contact the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) with their concerns. PUCO has the authority to oversee safety issues on completed pipelines in Ohio. If a landowner is concerned that an existing pipeline on their property has a legitimate safety issue, that landowner should contact PUCO to report suspected safety issues. PUCO inspectors may issue a noncompliance letter to pipeline companies, if a violation is discovered.
If the landowner specifically suspects that the pipeline company is not following recommended standards and construction specifications, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts or the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) may be able to assist. By law ODA must cooperate with other agencies to protect the agricultural status of rural lands adjacent to projects such as pipelines. ODA publishes model pipeline standard and construction specifications intended to limit the impact of construction of a pipeline on agricultural productivity.
Contract Disagreement Issues (Non-Safety Issues)
If a landowner has an issue that is not related to safety, that issue may be addressed in the easement agreement between the landowner and the pipeline company. A pipeline easement is a contract. Both parties agree to uphold their obligations under the contract. Essentially, the landowner agrees to provide subsurface land and access rights to a pipeline company in return for monetary compensation.
Of course, an easement is much more complicated than that. As part of this contractual relationship, a landowner has the right to request that the pipeline company uphold their duties under the contract. If a landowner doesn’t believe that a pipeline company is following the terms of an easement, the landowner has the right to enforce the agreement. While the landowner may seek an attorney to do this, it may be best to work with the pipeline company first.
Landowners should consider keeping detailed notes of issues as they arise. For example, a landowner may wish to take written notes on and photographs of the property after noticing a construction issue. This may be helpful in presenting the issue to the pipeline company. It may be cheaper and faster to raise the issue with the pipeline company first, before speaking with an attorney. However, if a landowner’s complaints aren’t resolved in a timely manner after speaking with the company, the landowner will want to speak with an attorney to enforce the contract.
What to Remember When Speaking with a Pipeline Company Representative
As a practical note, it is important for a landowner to realize that the workers on a pipeline might not be from the pipeline company itself. For example, if a landowner has an issue with the way that the easement is re-soiled and re-planted, it could be a third party that did the work. Landowner’s should re-read their easement to ensure that sub-contracting is allowed. When a landowner calls a company, he or she should realize that the company may not have done the work, but rather a subcontractor completed the work. Therefore, the landowner should fully describe the issue to the pipeline company so that the company understands the issue. Any evidence, such as photographs or written notes may be very helpful in resolving an issue with the pipeline company.
It is always best to identify potential issues early. Landowners may want to check the progress of pipeline construction on their property as it occurs. If there is an issue, landowners should promptly contact the company. Landowners should check their easement agreement to see if the easement outlines a process to dispute terms of the agreement.
If the contract does not outline a process to dispute terms of the agreement, it would be best for landowners to speak with the construction foreman first, then moving up the management chain if the company doesn’t react favorably. If the company and the landowner can’t come to a resolution, the landowner may need an attorney at some point.
Reclamation of the Land
After a pipeline is buried, the soil and the surface of the land is ideally placed back in its original condition. This process is sometimes referred to as reclamation. The pipeline easement agreement between a landowner and a pipeline company usually discusses how this process will be completed. Landowners and pipeline companies often agree beforehand how the land will be reclaimed after the pipeline is constructed. Pipelines may disturb trees, soil, and waterways during the construction process. These disturbances may impact crop yields and grazing habits in future years. For this reason, landowners may wish to carefully monitor the reclamation process and enforce the terms of the easement.
Living with a Pipeline Easement
When landowners have concerns or questions regarding a pipeline on their property, the best place to start is the pipeline easement. Landowners may have recently signed an easement, or landowners may be subject to a pre-existing easement signed by a previous owner of the property. Current landowners are subject to pre-existing easements, because easements “run with the land.” Old easements don’t typically expire, unless the original easement language provides for extinguishment of the easement under certain circumstances (for example, abandonment the easement).
Pipelines are a common tool for the transportation of natural resources. Many Ohio landowners have pipelines crisscrossing their property. Landowners should raise any pipeline safety or construction issues with the appropriate state agency, and any contractual issues should be brought to the pipeline company. As always, a landowner should pay careful attention to the language of the pipeline easement in determining how to approach a potential problem.
More information on pipeline easements is here.
Written by: Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The Ohio House of Representatives is considering a bill that would affect farmers and rural landowners by requiring the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management (ODNR) to plug abandoned oil and gas wells within 60 days, under certain circumstances. Introduced by Rep. Andy Thompson (R-Marietta), House Bill 225 would permit a landowner to report an idle or abandoned well to ODNR, who then must inspect the well and plug it if it’s deemed “distressed-high priority.”
Inspection of Idle or Abandoned Wells
Under HB 225, ODNR would be required to inspect an idle or abandoned well within 30 days after a landowner reports the existence of such a well on their property. No later than 60 days after the inspection, ODNR would be required to provide the landowner with a report concerning the idle or abandoned well that categorizes the well as one of the following:
- Distressed-high priority;
- Moderate-medium priority; and
- Maintenance-low priority.
HB 225 would require ODNR to adopt rules to define these three categories. In adopting these rules, ODNR must include a description of the criteria for an idle or abandoned well to fit within a particular category.
Plugging an Idle or Abandoned Well
If a well is categorized as distressed-high priority, it must be plugged by ODNR within six months after the report. Perhaps most interesting for Ohio landowners, HB 225 could increase the amount of funding available for landowners who choose to plug a well on their property themselves. Currently, landowners may arrange to have the well plugged by a third party. Under current Ohio Revised Code 1509.071(D), a landowner may be reimbursed for plugging costs; however, wells are plugged on a priority basis until the funds for the program are depleted. ODNR administers this law, otherwise known as the Orphan Well Program. More information on the current program is here.
Under HB 225, landowners would be permitted to take an income tax deduction for compensation paid by ODNR to reimburse landowners’ costs to plug an abandoned or improperly plugged oil or gas well. Current law requires ODNR to approve an application for reimbursement by a landowner. A landowner’s application must comply with oil and gas plugging laws and regulations for safety and environmental reasons.
Proposed Increase in Funding Under the Oil and Gas Well Fund
HB 225 would likely increase the funds available to Ohio landowners for plugging idle or abandoned wells. Ohio law currently requires that 14% of the current Oil and Gas Well Fund be dedicated to plugging idle and abandoned wells. HB 225 would require ODNR to dedicate 45% of the fund to plug idle and abandoned wells. ODNR would also be required to issue quarterly reports regarding expenditures associated with plugging wells. ODNR may therefore offer more funding to landowners to plug wells, because of the increase in funding and the requirement to show expenditures on the plugging of wells.
However, the proposed increase in funding may lead to an increase in ODNR’s expenditures on plugging wells. The proposed increase could also drive the number of wells that the state plugs. Under the strict timeline requirements that HB 225 proposes, ODNR may subsequently plug more wells after a landowner notifies ODNR of abandoned wells on their property.
The Future of HB 225
At a committee hearing earlier this month, witnesses testified that there are likely hundreds of wells that haven’t been discovered because they’ve been farmed over and covered by urban development. According to Rep. Thompson, most of the orphan wells that have been identified emit methane gas in addition to often contributing to the runoff of oil and brine into the soil. Rep. Thompson also noted that it is estimated that the current program for plugging abandoned wells in Ohio would take 20 years or more to plug the more than 600 known orphan wells in the state. Members of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association voiced support for HB 225, noting that the taxes levied on oil and gas production should be used to correct problems that have arisen from the early days of the industry.
Written by: Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
Several major pipeline projects, which plan to crisscross the state, are in the final stages of preparation. As part of the planning process for a project, pipeline builders plot the path that the pipeline will travel across the state. That path inevitably crosses private landowners’ property. Some landowners may feel overwhelmed trying to understand the rights of private pipeline companies to cross private property in Ohio. The frequently asked questions discussed below should help answer some of the common questions about pipeline projects in Ohio.
Can a pipeline company come on to my property to conduct a survey?
Yes. Prior to building a pipeline, pipeline companies must select a route where the pipeline is to be constructed. A pipeline project usually crosses private property along a proposed route. When a pipeline must cross private property along the project’s route, the pipeline company will ask the landowner for an easement that allows for pipeline construction on the property. However, even before signing an easement, a survey of the property may be necessary to determine the feasibility of constructing a pipeline on the property. Therefore, a pipeline company may need to enter a landowner’s private property to conduct a survey.
In Ohio, the law allows private companies that are organized “for transporting natural or artificial gas, petroleum, coal or its derivatives . . . through tubing, pipes or conduits” to enter upon private land to examine or survey for pipelines. This means that a pipeline company organized for these specific purposes does have the right in Ohio to enter onto a landowner’s property to conduct a private survey for the purpose of pipeline construction.
A pipeline company is telling me that they might use Eminent Domain to acquire my property. Is that legal?
Most likely, yes. A pipeline company may negotiate an easement with landowners which compensates landowners in exchange for the right to build a pipeline. However, landowners may not want to give a pipeline company the right to cross their property. In that scenario, pipeline companies have the option of crossing a landowner’s property by using eminent domain. Eminent domain is the taking of private property for public purposes with compensation.
In Ohio, the same law that allows for companies that are organized “for transporting natural or artificial gas, petroleum, coal or its derivatives . . . through tubing, pipes or conduits” to enter upon private land for survey also allows those same companies to use eminent domain to take private land. The law states that a company organized for the above purpose “may appropriate so much of such land, or any right or interest [to the land], as is deemed necessary for the laying down or building of pipes . . .” This suggests that pipeline companies have the power of eminent domain in Ohio.
Some argue that the law only grants eminent domain rights for transporting gas, and does not extend the right of eminent domain for the transport of gas derivatives such as ethane. While there is not strong legal support for this argument, it is under litigation in Ohio courts.
To use eminent domain, the pipeline company must prove that the landowner and the company were not able to reach an agreement about granting a pipeline easement and that the taking of the pipeline easement is “necessary.” A pipeline company must establish that the taking of property will serve a “public use.” Ohio courts have noted that the term public use is flexible. Accordingly, Ohio courts have held that private pipelines are a public use if those pipelines provide an economic benefit to Ohio. After establishing necessity and public use, the pipeline company must follow the procedures for eminent domain in Ohio Revised Code Chapter 163.
For an interstate pipeline that runs between Ohio and another state, federal law could allow a company to use eminent domain to obtain land from unwilling landowners. Federal law states that a company may acquire property rights for a gas pipeline if the company has obtained a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the company and landowner have not been able to agree on compensation for the pipeline easement. See 15 USC §717(F).
What about the pipeline cases that are in court right now, do those affect my rights?
Ohio landowners have probably heard about several high-profile pipeline projects that are planning to cut across the state. Some landowners have challenged the construction of these pipeline projects on their property. These landowners are challenging the right of the pipeline companies to use eminent domain to acquire an easement on their property. Two pipeline projects in Ohio are of particular interest: Kinder Morgan’s Utopia Project and Rover Pipeline LLC.
A court in Wood County, Ohio decided in 2016 that Kinder Morgan’s Utopia Project, which plans to run across Ohio and into Canada, did not have eminent domain authority. The court concluded that the pipeline did not “serve the public of the State of Ohio or any public in the United States.” The court based its conclusion on the fact that Utopia did not provide a benefit to Ohio. However, Kinder Morgan quickly appealed that case to Ohio’s Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Therefore, this opinion is on hold while a higher court decides whether it agrees with the lower court’s interpretation of the eminent domain law.
A second high-profile pipeline case involves the right of Rover Pipeline LLC to use eminent domain for an interstate pipeline project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued this pipeline project a certificate of public convenience and necessity on February 2, 2017. As a result, Rover Pipeline LLC is moving forward with construction on landowners’ property, because a federal court found that the pipeline company has eminent domain authority.
So how do these court cases affect landowners? First, landowners should be aware that other pipeline projects in Ohio likely have eminent domain authority, if they meet the requirements for eminent domain described by Ohio law. Second, landowners should be aware that that the pipeline case that began in Wood County and is currently being appealed is still pending. It is important to note that this case is reviewing the Utopia Project’s right to use eminent domain in Ohio. Therefore, this does not mean that all pipeline companies in Ohio no longer have the right to use eminent domain to acquire private property in Ohio. Instead, this case will determine the fate of that particular pipeline project and whether or not that project has the right to use eminent domain to acquire an easement. In the meantime, pipeline companies continue to have the right to use eminent domain in Ohio.
More information on pipelines in Ohio and resources for landowners considering signing an easement is available here.
Confusion at Federal Level Leaves Farmers Unsure of SPCC Rule Compliance
Peggy Hall, Asst. Professor, OSU Extension Agricultural and Resource Law Program
A common joke among attorneys is that the answer to every legal question is "maybe," and that answer is appropriate when asking whether farms will be exempted from complying with the Oil Spill Prevention, Containment and Countermeasure (SPCC) rule.
May 10, 2013 was the compliance deadline for the EPA rule requiring SPCC plans for farms storing above a threshold amount of oil. But several legislators have spoken out against the regulation and intend to exempt most farms from its requirements. As we reported in an earlier post, legislators successfully delayed EPA's ability to enforce the SPCC rule against farms until September 23, 2013, and also drafted the legislation to exempt many farms from the SPCC rule. But while the Senate and House have each passed proposals with SPCC exemption language, they've used two different bills to do so--the Senate's Water Resources Development Act and the House's Farm Bill. Neither bill has passed both chambers and the SPCC exemption remains in limbo today, the date after which the EPA may begin enforcing the rule.
In mid-August, two sponsors of the exemption, Senators Inhofe (R-OK) and Pryor (R-AR), sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy regarding SPCC enforcement. The letter clarified that Congress plans to exempt most farms from the rule and suggested that the EPA should not attempt to retroactively enforce the rule back to the original compliance date of May 10, 2013. Time will tell whether the senators' letter will prevent EPA from penalizing farms that did not have an SPCC plan by May 10 but had an oil spill anytime after the May 10 compliance deadline.
What Should Farmers do about SPCC Plans now?
Farmers who have been waiting to see if Congress would exempt them from the SPCC rule have to make a decision: comply now or risk penalties for non-compliance. A few considerations may help the decision-making process:
- Operating without an SPCC plan carries financial risk. If a farm that is subject to the SPCC rule does not have a plan but does have an oil spill that discharges into a waterway, the farm will incur additional penalties for failing to have and implement an SPCC plan. These penalties vary depending upon the size of the facility and the severity of the spill; our research revealed recent fines ranging from $1,500 to over $55,000. Our research also shows the cost of an SPCC plan from a certified engineer or consulting firm to begin at around $1,000, with higher costs for larger farms.
- Only certain farms must comply with SPCC. Farms that store less than 1,320 gallons of diesel, gasoline, hydraulic oil, lube oil, crop oil or vegetable oil aboveground or less than 42,000 gallons below ground do not need an SPCC plan. All other farms might need an SPCC plan if it's possible that spilled oil could discharge into a waterway. To learn more about whether a farm is subject to the SPCC plan rule, visit here.
- Smaller, lower-risk farms can "self-certify" their SPCC plan. The SPCC rule allows farms with smaller oil storage and no history of significant oil spills ("Tier I farms") to create and implement an SPCC plan; other farms require certification by an engineer. The EPA provides a model template for Tier I farms on their website. Be aware, however, that preparing the plan requires some work: a thorough assessment of the farm's oil storage, selection and installation of appropriate containment measures and proper training and response practices. For those who don't want to prepare their own plan, consider a consultant. Consulting companies offer services such as assessment, consultation, plan development, certification and future inspections.
- A farm may be able to seek a compliance deadline extension. The SPCC rule allows a farm that couldn't meet the compliance deadline to submit a written request for an extension to the EPA regional administrator for the state where the farm is located. There are several reasons EPA may grant an extension: because a Professional Engineer (PE) isn’t available to create and certify a plan, if the farm is located in an area impacted by floods, or because facility modifications could not be completed before the deadline. For more on seeking an extension, visit this link.
- Insurance coverage may be at risk. Non-compliance with the law can negate insurance coverage; most insurers would likely deem the failure to have an SPCC plan after September 23, 2013 as "non-compliant."
- Oil storage containment is good risk management. Even without the SPCC rule, assessing and managing oil storage and handling practices on the farm can pay off. Consider the recent case of an Ohio farm with a leaking oil tank that polluted a nearby waterway; the farm paid over $15,000 in fines and cleanup costs.
While "maybe" is a good answer to whether Congress will exempt many farms from the SPCC rule, it isn't a good answer to whether farmers should ignore the SPCC regulation because of the confusion in Congress. For more on SPCC and agriculture, visit the EPA's web page.
Informing landowners who are dealing with shale development is the goal of a day-long workshop offered in Mahoning County by OSU Extension. "Shale and You: A Workshop for Landowners" will take place on Saturday, February 23, 2013 at the Mill Creek MetroParks Farm, 7574 Columbiana-Canfield Road, Canfield, Ohio. OSU Extension's Agricultural and Resource Law Program is sponsoring the workshop with grant assistance from the USDA's North Central Risk Management Education Center and host support from OSU Extension Mahoning County.
Educators in OSU Extension's Shale Education Program will provide an update on shale development in Ohio and address the topics of taxation of shale development income, wealth management, pipeline construction, oil and gas leasing issues and water testing. In addition to presentations on each topic, the team will also provide information displays and the opportunity to speak individually with educators. A discussion with a family who recently experienced shale development on their farm will conclude the workshop.
Registration is $15. Materials and refreshments are guaranteed to those who register by February 18. Session and speaker listings, a registration form and other details are available at http://serc.osu.edu/events/shale-and-you-workshop-landowners. For shale development resources, visit the OSU Extension Shale Education Program website at http://shalegas.osu.edu.