Top Leases: Assessing (and Avoiding) the Risks of Novation

You only have three more months on the primary term of an oil and gas lease that was issued nearly five years ago with a 1/6th royalty.  A drilling permit should be issued any day now, and you anticipate commencing operations to drill a well in sufficient time to hold the lease.  You instruct your landman to obtain a top lease from the mineral owner just in case there is a hiccup and you can’t start operations in time to hold the existing lease. Your landman negotiates a new lease from the mineral owner covering the same lands but has to agree to a 3/16ths royalty in order to obtain the top lease.  But, the top lease fails to expressly state that it is a top lease to the existing lease and doesn’t contain any other language clarifying that the top lease will only be effective if and when the underlying existing lease expires.  Despite the precautionary top lease, the well permit is issued when expected and you are able to commence drilling a well in time to hold the prior existing lease.

After the well is drilled and completed, is there a risk that the mineral owner could successfully argue that the new top lease is a replacement of the existing lease and you are required to pay a 3/16ths royalty instead of a 1/6th royalty? In the oil and gas industry, you often hear landmen and attorneys frame the question as whether or not the top lease will be deemed a “novation” of the prior existing lease. But what is the standard to prove a novation? How likely is it that the mineral owner above could successfully argue that the top lease is a novation of the prior lease, even though the well was drilled in time to hold the prior existing lease? This article will provide a brief overview of the elements and burden of proof to establish a novation.

A recent 2015 case out of Pennsylvania provides an excellent overview and example of the novation analysis in the context of oil and gas leases. In Mason v. Range Resources-Appalachia LLC, 120 F. Supp. 3d 425, 433 (W.D. Pa. 2015), an oil and gas lease was issued in 1961 in Western Pennsylvania and was arguably held by gas storage operations on the property (and by the payment of rentals). Years later, during the Marcellus shale boom, a landman working for Range Resources obtained an oil and gas lease in 2007 from the same mineral owners and covering the same lands as the 1961 lease. Range Resources only later discovered that it already owned the existing 1961 lease. Testimony in the case indicated that the leasing environment at that time was “chaotic,” that Range Resources did not have a good process for evaluating lease validity, and that landmen were taking leases without conducting complete due diligence of possible existing leases. Range Resources did not drill a well within the term of the 2007 lease, and the mineral owners asserted that the 2007 lease was a novation of the 1961 lease (which had unique provisions allowing the lease to be held by rental payments for gas storage), and that the 2007 lease then expired.

The Pennsylvania court set forth four elements to show a novation, which elements are the same or similar in other jurisdictions that have undertaken a discussion of novation:

“(1) the displacement and extinction of a prior contract, (2) the substitution of a valid new contract for the prior contract, (3) sufficient legal consideration for the new contract, and (4) the consent of the parties.”1

The Pennsylvania court further stated that “whether a contract has the effect of a novation primarily depends upon the parties’ intent” and “the party claiming the existence of a novation bears the burden of demonstrating the parties had a meeting of the minds.” The court stated that evidence of the parties’ intent to enter in to a novation can be shown “by other writings, or by words, or by conduct, or by all three.” Courts in other states have similarly emphasized that a party claiming a novation has the burden of proof, and that the party asserting the claim of novation has the burden of proving all of the required elements for a novation.2 A novation is never presumed. Instead the presumption is that the new contract was taken conditionally or as additional security, absent evidence of intention to the contrary.3 In the Pennsylvania case, the court determined that the mineral owners continued to accept rentals under the 1961 lease even during the term of the 2007 lease, and there was no evidence that the parties expressly intended to replace the 1961 lease with the 2007 lease.

Returning to our example above, the case law suggests that a mineral owner attempting to argue that the top lease was a novation of the base lease would have a very challenging case. But there is still a risk of such a claim, even if the claim is ultimately for nuisance value only. How can an operator protect itself from novation claims? Obviously, the best approach is to always put language in any top lease that makes it clear that the lease will only go into effect if and when the base lease expires by its terms, and make that intent clear in any other written correspondence to a landowner (such as an initial offer letter).

But what if an operator accidentally obtains a standard lease with no top lease language when it already owns an existing lease? For drilling purposes, the mineral interest will be leased either way. But an operator should ideally take steps to address any ambiguity resulting from the top lease and clarify the intent of the parties. If the well is successfully completed in time to hold the existing lease, the best approach would be to have the mineral owner (and operator) sign and record a ratification document where the parties acknowledge that the base lease was held by the drilling of the well, and that the top lease will remain of record as a top lease only in the event the well ceases operations.

Another approach (with attendant risks) would be to send an informative letter to a landowner prior to drilling, informing them of the pending well, stating that the operator will deem the base lease as held by the drilling of the well. That would at least set up an estoppel argument, and the operator will know prior to drilling the well whether or not the landowner objects and claims a novation. Or, an operator may simply pay proceeds on the prior existing lease, see if the landowner accepts royalty payments under that lease, and simply run the risk of a future novation claim. There may also be facts that make an operator more confident that a novation argument will be unsuccessful that justifies a riskier wait-and-see approach.4

Each fact scenario will be different, and an oil and gas lessee must evaluate the facts and risks to determine what level of clarification and curative action it requires to address risks of novation claims when there are overlapping leases.

1 Another novation case in the oil and gas context, Warrior Drilling & Eng’g Co. v. King, 446 So. 2d 31, 33-34 (Ala. 1984), framed the elements as: “[T]o establish a novation there must be: (1) a previous valid obligation, (2) an agreement of the parties thereto to a new contract or obligation, (3) an agreement that is an extinguishment of the old contract or obligation, and (4) the new contract or obligation must be a valid one between the parties thereto.”
2 In re United Display & Box, Inc., 198 B.R. 829, 831 (Bankr. M.D. Fla. 1996). See also Fusco v. City of Union City, 618 A.2d 914 (App. Div. 1993); Alexander v. Angel, 236 P.2d 561 (1951); Scott v. Bank of Coushatta, 512 So. 2d 356 (La. 1987); Credit Bureaus Adjustment Dep’t, Inc. v. Cox Bros., 295 P.2d 1107 (1956).
3 For example, a Utah court conducting a novation analysis stated: “The burden of proof as to a novation by the transaction in question rests upon the party who asserts it; … an intention to effect a novation will not be presumed; … in the absence of evidence indicating a contrary intention, it will be presumed, prima facie, that the new obligation was accepted merely as additional or collateral security, or conditionally, subject to the payment thereof; and the intention to effect a novation must be clearly shown.” First Am. Commerce v. Washington Mut., 743 P.2d 1193 (Utah 1987); see also Tri-State Oil Tool Indus., Inc. v. EMC Energies, Inc., 561 P.2d 714, 716 (Wyo. 1977).
4 For example, if the existing lease covers multiple parcels in several drilling units, and the new lease only covers one parcel, that may make an argument for a novation more difficult. Also, if there are unrecorded documents that evidence clear intent that the second lease was intended only as a top lease, that fact may make an operator more confident that a novation claim would be unsuccessful.