As with last month’s oil and gas lease sale in Utah, the BLM has now postponed its December 10th oil and gas lease sale of nine parcels in Arkansas and Michigan. Although the BLM gave no reason for the postponement, environmental activists had announced that they were planning to challenge the oil and gas lease sale in an effort “to keep fossil fuels in the ground.” The environmental groups opposed to oil and gas development have hailed the BLM’s postponement of the December lease sale as a victory. If correct, this would be the second time in less than a month that environmental groups forced the BLM to postpone an oil and gas lease sale.
Imagine a scenario in which the property description in one of your leases, meticulously transcribed from a document in the record chain of title, is later found to describe only a portion of the lands thought to be included. You are suddenly at risk of losing part, if not all, of your investment. What do you do? The answer depends on whether the lease contains a “Mother Hubbard clause.”
What is a Mother Hubbard Clause?
The “Mother Hubbard” or “cover-all” clause is a common provision in an oil and gas lease1 that provides a mechanism to include lands not adequately described in the lease or certain interests that vest after the lease has been issued.2 It was primarily designed to protect against the loss of small strips of land that were unintentionally omitted from the property description. But it was also meant to ensure that certain types of after-acquired interests, such as those acquired through adverse possession, were covered by the lease.3 At its core, the Mother Hubbard clause is an insurance policy.
Although many variations exist, the Mother Hubbard clause typically consists of two basic components. The first is a property catch-all. For example, the property description might state that “in addition to the described premises the lease covers adjoining, contiguous, or adjacent lands owned by the lessor.” The second component is meant to cover any interests that vest in the lessor after the lease has been issued. This language will likely include a statement that “the property includes any interests which the lessor may hereafter acquire by revision, prescription or otherwise.” Most modern Mother Hubbard clauses include both of these safeguards. (more…)
Over the past few months, the economics of the oil and gas industry have changed dramatically. As oil and gas prices have fallen, so too have profit margins and working capital. Many companies will weather this storm. A fortunate few will expand their positions and acquire additional assets, some of which will be purchased from distressed companies. In dealing with these distressed companies and their assets, landmen and other oil and gas industry professionals will need to have a working-knowledge of select bankruptcy-related laws and concepts to protect their company’s assets. In this article, we will discuss one aspect of relevant bankruptcy law: fraudulent transfers and how they may affect property transactions.1
What is a fraudulent transfer?
When a company files for bankruptcy, the bankruptcy trustee may avoid any fraudulent transfer of property made within four years of filing in most states, if certain conditions are met. Fraudulent transfers occur when: (1) there was an intent to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors; or (2) the debtor transfers property without receiving “reasonably equivalent value” in exchange for the transfer and is insolvent at the time of the transfer, becomes insolvent as a result of the transfer, or is left with an unreasonably small amount of capital to operate its business as a result of the transfer.2 If a transaction is deemed to be a fraudulent transfer, the bankruptcy trustee can recover the property or obtain a judgment for the value of the property.
The first type of fraudulent transfer involves an actual intent to defraud and is more easily identified. For example, in In re Tronox, a court found that a debtor transferred property with environmental liabilities with an intent to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors through a spinoff.3 In another case, In re ASARCO, a court found that the debtor hindered and delayed creditors by directing all of the consideration from a sale of a majority of a mining entity to one of the Debtor’s creditors, to the detriment of other creditors.4 These situations usually involve related parties.
The second type of fraudulent transfer, commonly referred to as a constructively fraudulent transfer, occurs when a company purchases an asset without paying reasonably equivalent value. This can occur when purchasing assets from a third party or, more commonly, when buying-out a partner to resolve a debt or other obligation. If the seller files for bankruptcy subsequent to the transaction, there is a risk that the bankruptcy trustee could seek to have the transaction declared to be a fraudulent transfer.
In determining “reasonably equivalent value” a bankruptcy court looks at the totality of the circumstances. Fraudulent transfer laws are designed to preserve the assets of the debtor for the benefit of creditors. When carrying out this intent, courts disregard the form of a transaction and look “instead to its substance.”5 Fraudulent conveyance law is “designed to protect creditors’ rights” and looks at transactions from “the perspective of creditors.” 6 Whether a purchaser paid reasonably equivalent value is a subjective question that depends on the facts of each individual situation.
What does this mean for landmen?
Oil and gas professionals should be aware of the risks of acquiring property from distressed companies. To avoid constructively fraudulent transfers, a purchaser should ensure that they are giving “reasonably equivalent value” for the asset. This can be difficult. Under certain circumstances, when the value of the property is enhanced by the buyer after the sale closes (through drilling or other development) the debtor may later contend that the buyer failed to pay reasonably equivalent value.
The best way to determine “reasonably equivalent value” when dealing with a distressed company is to obtain an appraisal from an independent third party. If an appraisal is not cost-effective or is impractical, the risk of a fraudulent transfer can be mitigated by conducting proper due diligence.
An awareness of the financial health of the companies you are doing business with is as important as ever. By evaluating the transaction now, you can avoid problems down the road.
1There are many tools that an oil and gas company can use to mitigate its exposure to bankruptcy risks. A full discussion of all the tools is beyond the scope of this article. If you have questions on how to mitigate bankruptcy risks, or if a business partner files for bankruptcy, we advise you to contact a bankruptcy expert immediately to protect your assets.
2 See 11 U.S.C. § 548.
3 In re Tronox Inc., 429 B.R. 73 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2010).
4 See In re ASARCO, L.L.C, 702 F.3d 250 (5th Cir. 2012).
5 In re HBE Leasing Corp. v. Frank, 48 F.3d 623, 638 (2d Cir.1995) (construing the New York’s fraudulent conveyance statute).
6In re Crowthers McCall Pattern, Inc., 129 B.R. 992, 998 (S.D.N.Y.1991).
The granting clause of a lease contains the required words of grant that create an interest in the lessee.1 This clause is typically found at the beginning of the lease and is often overlooked when drafting a lease, to the detriment of the lessee. The granting clause generally covers three main topics: (i) the leased substances; (ii) the associated easement rights; and (iii) the property description.
The granting clause should include a careful description of the substances covered by the lease. Typical granting clauses include language such as “oil, gas, and other minerals,”2 “oil and all gas of whatsoever nature or kind,”3 or some variation of these simplistic descriptions. Even though this language may, at first glance, seem uncontroversial, the failure to adequately list the substances covered by the lease has led to a multitude of lawsuits.
For example, the failure to adequately define the leased substances can lead to questions whether the lease covers coalbed methane, which depending on the state, may not be included in a general grant of gas. Another problem is encountered when interpreting what is included in the “other minerals” under a lease. The parties to a lease should not rely on a court to dictate what substances are covered by that lease.
As a practical matter, the goal in drafting the leased substances portion of the granting clause is to ensure that the lease covers all substances that are necessary to produce the oil and gas from the leasehold. Any special substances that may be encountered, such as coalbed methane, helium, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, or sulfur, should be individually listed in the lease. By including a list of known or expected substances, together with catch-all language to cover substances that may not yet be known or expected in the field, the lessee can avoid unfavorable interpretations by a court that could render the lease unprofitable or unusable.
Associated Easement Rights
The second part of the granting clause is the description of the easement granted to the lessee. Historically, the grant of an easement and the right to conduct surface operations has been broadly, if not vaguely, described in the lease. The lessee has, instead, relied on the implied right of access to the surface estate arising from the mineral estate’s dominance. Reliance on this implied right of access can be problematic when the surface owner engages in activities that prevent or inhibit oil and gas development or when the surface owner disagrees with and challenges the lessee’s use of the surface estate.
As for split estate lands, the lessee should be careful to ensure that the lease does not grant and that the lessee does not rely on a right of access that was not reserved or conveyed in the deed creating the split estate. Keep in mind that the lessor can only grant the rights that the lessor owns.
To avoid these issues, I recommend that this portion of the granting clause describe the specific activities that the lessee will be conducting on the leased premises, such as construction and location of the various production facilities, powerlines, roads, pipelines, and any other activity that may foreseeably be required to produce the oil and gas. By describing the specific activities, the surface owner is put on notice of the types of activities that the lessee is planning to conduct on the surface estate. If a lawsuit ensues, it will be very difficult if not impossible for the surface owner to argue that they were unaware that the surface would be used for these activities.
I note also that, even though the lessee, through careful drafting of the lease, may be able to secure surface access for gathering facilities and other surface disturbance activities not related to production of oil and gas from the leasehold, this grant of access could be terminated upon expiration of the lease term. For such activities, I recommend that the lessor obtain a separate surface use agreement specifically granting the right to conduct these activities to ensure that they survive termination of the lease.
The Leased Premises
Finally, the granting clause should include a description of the land covered by the lease. This should, of course, include a legal description of the property together with the acreage covered by the leasehold. For small or irregular tracts of land, the lease should include a Mother Hubbard clause4 to ensure that inadequately described property that is adjacent to and contiguous with the leasehold will be covered by the lease.
In the event that the lease is limited in depth, the property description should include language that identifies the specific interval covered by the lease, making sure that the depth description is tied to a measured depth in a specific well. A carefully crafted depth description will avoid confusion as to the actual depth covered by the lease.
A common, but surprising, issue is that some granting clauses fail to include present words of grant. That is, the granting clause describes the activities that can be undertaken on the leasehold but does not expressly grant the rights to the underlying oil and gas.5
Another issue that you should be aware of is that, with horizontal drilling resulting in ever increasingly long laterals, the easement in the granting clause should include language granting the lessee a subsurface easement to accommodate horizontal development. Again, if this subsurface easement will be used for the benefit of lands located outside the leasehold, the subsurface easement should be created by a separate agreement between the parties, thereby preventing the easement from terminating with the underlying lease. Also, for a lease limited by depth, the granting language should include a subsurface easement for all depths that must be traversed in order to access the leased interval.
In summary, through careful drafting of the various components of the granting clause, the lessee can protect itself from unexpected complications and ensure that it is allowed to fully develop and produce the oil and gas resource.
1Patrick H. Martin & Bruce M. Kramer, Williams & Myers, Manual of Oil and Gas Terms 497 (12th ed. 2003).
2David E. Pierce, Incorporating a Century of Oil and Gas Jurisprudence Into the “Modern” Oil and Gas Lease, 33 Washburn L. J. 786 (1994).
3Martin & Kramer.
4A clause commonly included in contemporary leases to meet the problem of adequately describing strips of land owned by a lessor contiguous to the land specifically described by the lease and intended to be covered by the lease. Id. at 246. Also known as a cover-all clause or an all-inclusive clause.