Pennsylvania; Briggs v. Southwestern Production Company: Rule of Capture still bars subsurface trespass claim, including by hydraulic fracturing, but appears after much judicial scrutiny, nothing has been resolved except judges change the rules to suit whatever feeds the industrial-political demands of the day. Judges will change the rules next time too, no matter how specific pleadings are, eg will complain the pleadings are too long and demand they are shortened, as they did to me.

Pennsylvania Rule of Capture Still Bars Subsurface Trespass Claim by Gary Reed, Jan 20, 2021, JD Supra

After a trial court order, two appellate opinions, a dissent, and another appellate opinion, the tension between a well operator and an adjacent mineral owner over whether hydraulic fracturing can constitute a subsurface trespass in Pennsylvania has, for the most part, been resolved. In Briggs v. Southwestern Production Company, several points of Pennsylvania law have been confirmed:

  • Well operators may use hydraulic fracturing to drain oil and gas from under another’s property, at least in the absence of physical invasion.
  • The rule of capture does not preclude trespass liability if the operation creates a physical invasion. Makes no sense. Frac’ing is an obvious massive industrial physical invasion, under and above ground. Frac data are on file with companies and regulators, showing depths, lengths of legs, ladders, and number/size of perfs and fracs. Not only is it a clear invasion, industry admits frac’ing is a “brute force and ignorant experiment” with many unintended consequences frac’ing out uncontrollably in all directions.
  • The mineral owner’s complaint must specifically allege that the operator engaged in horizontal drilling that extended onto their property or that the operator propelled frack fluids and proppants across the property line. Under or above ground, or both?

The dispute

The dispute was whether, as argued by mineral owner Briggs, (1) the extraction of natural gas from beneath their property by the operator of a well on an adjacent tract constitutes a trespass, and (2) the rule of capture applies to natural gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing. Southwestern, the operator of the well, denied that it could be liable for trespass because: (1) it had not entered the Briggs’ property or conducted oil and gas activities thereon But, had the company entered under the property?, and (2) the law of capture precludes trespass liability.

First appeal

The Superior Court, in reversing a trial court summary judgment in favor of Southwestern, held that “hydraulic fracturing may constitute an actionable trespass where subsurface fractures, fracturing fluid and proppant cross boundary lines and extend into the subsurface estate of an adjoining property for which the operator does not have a mineral lease, resulting in the extraction of natural gas from beneath the adjoining landowner’s property.” This ruling makes sense.

Supreme Court

On appeal by Southwestern, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that (1) the use of hydraulic fracturing does not modify the rule of capture, and (2) when hydraulic fracturing is utilized, “physical invasion” is a necessary precondition. Makes no sense, except that it’s a ruling specific to protecting all frac’ers. A contradictory escape hatch, benefiting only frac’ers and not the owners of the resource. The Supreme Court admonished the Superior Court for applying a “natural-versus-artificially-induced-flow litmus” to determine whether the rule of capture applies in a given situation.

The decision was not unanimous. The dissent agreed that the rule of capture protects an operator from liability when there has been no physical intrusion but spent their time discussing pleading rules. Another nice escape hatch for frac’ers, via the dissent (same circuitous wordsmithing trickery to enable frac’ing via criminal AER, happened in Supreme Court of Canada in Ernst vs AER).

Plaintiff: Be mindful of how you plead

Here, on remand, the Superior Court determined that the Briggs’ complaint did not specifically allege that Southwestern engaged in horizontal drilling that extended onto their property or propelled frack fluids and proppants across their property line. Becuse of that fatal flaw, summary judgment in favor of Southwestern was reinstated.

Questions remain 

In a footnote the court observed that “the Supreme Court’s holding leaves open for future plaintiffs the possibility of litigating trespass claims based on hydraulic fracturing, so long as they specifically plead that hydraulic fracturing resulted in a physical invasion of their property.” Courts and litigants are left to wonder about the fate of a complaint alleging physical intrusion through fracking. And as long as the rich and powerful control our politicians and courts, litigants will wonder wingless into eternity, every time judges change the rules mid play to suit the industrial-political needs of the day.

Refer also to:

2020: Terrible court ruling for families and the environment; Good news for frac’ers: Pa. Supreme Court Says Rule of Capture Applies to Fracking

2019: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Considering Whether Rule of Capture Applies to Hydraulic Fracturing

2019: Pennsylvania Superior Court Fractures Long-Standing Rule of Capture; Appeals court rejects frac company’s appeal

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