lease expiration

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.

Force Majeure – May the Force Be With You and Save Your Oil and Gas Lease

In Star Wars, the force means an “energy field created by all living things… It binds the galaxy together.”1 In French, force majeure means superior force. In a fee oil and gas lease, the force majeure clause is designed to protect the lessee from being liable for damages or the lease from terminating for causes beyond the lessee’s control. The lease typically contains numerous clauses designed to protect the lessee and save the lease when particular events occur. Such clauses include the shut-in royalty, dry hole, cessation of production, continuous drilling, and entirety clauses. We have addressed most of these clauses in this blog, The Oil and Gas Report.2 The force majeure clause is often thought of as the savings clause of last resort. Force majeure clauses vary widely and their application depends on the specific language of the clause.

Force Majeure Events: “Judge me by my size, do you?”3

The events covered by the force majeure clause can vary from narrowly defined events to broad acts of God. Some clauses are limited to excusing performance only when it is prevented by governmental actions through laws, rules, regulations, or orders. For example:

All terms and express or implied covenants of this lease shall be subject to all Federal and State Laws, Executive Orders, Rules, or Regulations, and this lease shall not be terminated in whole or in part, nor Lessee held liable in damages, for failure to comply therewith if compliance is prevented by, or if such failure is the result of any such Law, Order, Rule or Regulation.4

Other force majeure clauses excuse performance for a comprehensive array of events. For example:

The term “force majeure” as used herein shall be Acts of God, strikes, lockouts, or other industrial disturbances, acts of the public enemy, wars, blockades, riots, epidemics, lighting, earthquakes, explosions, accidents or repairs to machinery or pipes, delays of carriers, inability to obtain materials or rights of way on reasonable terms, acts of public authorities, or any other causes, whether or not of the same kind as enumerated herein, not within the control of the lessee and which by the exercise of due diligence lessee is unable to overcome.5

Courts will carefully scrutinize the list of events identified in the clause to judge whether the subject event is covered in the force majeure clause.6 Additionally, courts have held that the force majeure event must be outside of the lessee’s control7 and the lessee cannot be the cause of the event.8

Performance Excused: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”9

The force majeure clause will only excuse the performance identified therein. Care should be exercised in determining whether the clause applies to the performance of general or specific covenants or conditions. Generally, failure to perform a covenant will not automatically result in termination of the lease; however, failure to perform a condition will automatically cause the lease to terminate.10 Following are some examples of the types of performance that may excused in the force majeure clause:

    • all terms and express or implied covenants;
    • lessee’s obligations whether express or implied;
    • drilling operations or compliance with the provisions of this lease, both expressed and implied;
    • drilling, working or production operations; or
    • performance or operations.

The force majeure clause may only apply to part of the lease term, i.e., the primary term or secondary term. For instance, if rentals are due during the primary term and a force majeure event occurs, some forms excuse the rental payment; however, others require payments continue to be made, and others are silent on payment. If the lease is in the secondary term and a force majeure event occurs, the clause may require a royalty or a minimum royalty payment during the force majeure event to keep the lease alive without drilling or production. For example:

If after the expiration of the primary term and while the lease is in force and the lessee cannot maintain the same in effect because prevented by force majeure, then the lease will nevertheless continue, but lessee will pay to the owners as royalty an amount equal to ___ dollar per year for each acre retained hereunder.11

If payments are due after the beginning of the force majeure event, the force majeure clause should describe when the payments are due, such as a reasonable time after the occurrence of the event, with subsequent payments due on the anniversary date of the lease, and calculation of a prorated amount due if the event occurs and ends on a date other than the anniversary date.

The force majeure event typically must prevent, delay, interrupt, or make impossible performance of the specified covenants or conditions. Although performance may appear impossible, some courts are willing to look at alternatives the lessee should have attempted before invoking the force majeure clause.12 The force majeure clause comes into effect only if the performance is rendered impossible unless the subject clause contains less exacting terms, then, in some cases, it may be invoked if performance is unreasonably burdensome.13

Reconciling Lease Provisions:”Use the Force, Luke.”14

To use the force majeure clause, it must be reconciled and construed along with all the other provisions of the lease. Generally, courts will refuse to excuse performance under the force majeure clause if another clause is applicable, such as excusing production by the payment of shut-in royalties.15 Similarly, courts have been willing to find that a cessation of production for whatever reason is not relieved by the force majeure clause if the lease contained a cessation of production clause requiring commencement of operations for drilling or reworking on the leased premises within a defined amount of days and the force majeure event did not prevent commencement of drilling or reworking operations.16

The interplay of the habendum clause17 and force majeure clause was the subject of two nearly identical cases in which the lessees claimed as a force majeure event the State of New York’s highly publicized moratorium, and now ban, on high volume hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of horizontal wells. The lessees invoked the force majeure clause claiming that the fracking moratorium prevented them from drilling on the leased lands prior to the expiration of the primary term.18 On appeal of one of the cases to the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal Court of Appeals asked the state court19 to answer two previously unanswered questions of state law: (1) under New York law did New York’s moratorium constitute a force majeure event; and (2) if so, does the force majeure clause modify the habendum clause and extend the leases’ primary terms?20

Each of the subject leases contained a habendum clause providing that the lease “shall remain in force for a primary term of FIVE (5) years from the date hereof and as long thereafter as the said land is operated by Lessee in the production of oil or gas.” The leases also contained the following force majeure clause:

[i]f and when drilling or other operations hereunder are delayed or interrupted … as a result of some order, rule, regulation, requisition or necessity of the government, or as a result of any other cause whatsoever beyond the control of the Lessee, the time of such delay or interruption shall not be counted against Lessee, anything in this lease to the contrary notwithstanding. All express or implied covenants of this lease shall be subject to all Federal and State laws, Executive Orders, Rules or Regulations, and this lease shall not be terminated, in whole or in part, nor Lessee held liable in damages for failure to comply therewith, if compliance is prevent by, or if such failure is the result of any such Law, Order, Rule or Regulation.

(Emphasis added)

Unfortunately, the state court punted on the first question, rendering it academic by its answer to the second question. The court stated that the force majeure clause does not modify the primary term of the habendum clause and, therefore, a force majeure event cannot be used to extend the leases’ primary terms. Importantly, the state court found that the habendum clause in the leases does not incorporate the force majeure clause by reference or contain any language expressly subjecting it to the other lease terms and the force majeure clause does not refer to the habendum clause with specificity; therefore, the habendum clause is not expressly modified or enlarged by the force majeure clause. It found that the phrase in the force majeure clause “anything in this lease to the contrary notwithstanding” does not supersede all other clauses in the lease, just those in which it is in conflict, and the habendum and force majeure clauses are not in conflict during the primary term of the lease. Additionally, the court stated that the force majeure clause pertains only to express or implied covenants (the lessee’s obligations) and, in the primary term, the covenant is to pay rentals (not drilling). As to the secondary term of the habendum clause, the court did recognize that since the force majeure clause expressly refers to a delay or interruption in drilling or production, the force majeure clause modified the secondary term of the habendum clause in which the lessee has the obligation to produce oil or gas or the lease terminated. The court stated that drilling and production operations are covenants only applicable to the secondary term of the lease. Finally, the court made the distinction between termination and expiration noting that the force majeure clause expressly deals with lease termination, something that only occurs in the secondary term, rather than lease expiration that occurs at the end of the primary term. The court stated that if the lessees intended for the habendum clause to be subject to other provisions of the contract, they could have expressly done so.21 Accordingly, the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals applied the law as set out by the state court and held that under New York law the force majeure clause did not modify the habendum clause. Therefore, even if the moratorium was a force majeure event, it did not operate to extend the leases.22

The lesson of the Beardslee decision is that in similarly drafted leases, the force majeure clause is basically inapplicable to the primary term and, if the lessee is prevented or delayed from drilling and the force majeure clause is not applicable, the primary term of the lease will continue on and the lessee will have no way in which to extend the lease into the secondary term.

Conclusion: “The Force is strong with this one.”23

To invoke superior force, such force must be understood. In drafting the lease, careful consideration should be given to: (1) the lease play and anticipated operations; (2) defining the force majeure events in the force majeure clause in a sufficient manner; (3) defining the covenants, conditions, and obligations, with consideration to the primary and secondary terms, in the force majeure clause that will be excused upon the occurrence of a force majeure event; (4) incorporating by reference the force majeure clause in the habendum clause and any other pertinent clauses; and (5) reconciling all of the lease provisions. If dealing with the preservation of an existing lease, the safest route may be to request a ratification and amendment of the lease or other such agreement with the lessor confirming the existence and status of the lease and obtaining an extension thereto as necessary; of course, this is assuming that the lessor is willing to execute such an agreement.

Under general principles of contract interpretation, the courts will construe the lease against the party who drafted it, most often the lessee. Fracking bans and other prohibitions on oil and gas exploration and production exist across the country24 and depending on the results of the 2016 Presidential Elections,25 lawsuits claiming that the force majeure clause will not save an oil and gas lease during a fracking ban may become more prevalent. Looking ahead, the next impediment may include bans on transporting oil by rail through certain states.26 If transportation by rail is crucial to the economic viability of the play, then such a ban on the transportation of the oil should be addressed in the lease.

In all your lease endeavors, MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU.


1 Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars (subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope) (1977).
2 Fee Lease 101 Series, www.theoilandgasreport.com.
3 Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
4 4-6 Williams & Meyers, Oil and Gas Law § 683.1 (citations omitted).
5 Aukema v. Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC, 904 F. Supp. 2d 199 (N.D.N.Y. 2012).
6 See Allegiance Hillview, LP v. Range Texas Prod., LLC, 347 S.W.3d 855 (Tex. App. 2011); Sun Operating Ltd. Partnership v. Holt, 984 S.W.2d 277 (Tex. App. 1998); Perlman v. Pioneer Ltd. Pship, 918 F.2d 1246 (5th Cir. 1990).
7 Vortt Exploration Co., Inc. v. EOG Resources, Inc., 2009 Tex. App. LEXIS 4113 (Tex. App. – Eastland, May 29, 2009); Maralex v. Resources, Inc. v. Gilbreath, 76 P.3d 626 (N.M. 2003) (if the cessation of production was caused by the pressures in a third party pipeline, it would be beyond the control of the lessee; however, if the cessation was caused by insufficient pressure within the well, it would not be an external cause beyond the lessee’s control).
8 Schroeder v. Snoga, 1997 Tex. App. LEXIS 4030 (Tex. App.–San Antonio July 31, 1997) (Commission shut-in order was caused by the operator’s violation of the Commission’s rules); Edington v. Creek Oil Co., 690 P.2d 970 (Mont. 1984) (Commission shut-in order for a seepage issue could have been resolved by the lessee); Caddell v. Threshold Dev. Co. 609 S.W.2d 871 ( Tex. App.-Amarillo 1980) (a lockout by the lessor was within the meaning of the force majeure clause).
9 Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
10 Older lease forms may contain conditions such as payment of rentals during the primary term or payment of shut-in royalties in the secondary term. In that case, failure to timely and appropriately make the payments will result in the lease automatically terminating.
11 4-6 Williams & Meyers, Oil and Gas Law § 683.1 (citations omitted).
12 See Logan v. Blaxton, 71 So. 2d 675 (La. Ct. App. 1954). Although the force majeure clause identified floods as an event and heavy rainfall made roads impassable and impracticable to transport crude oil to market, the court found that the rains were seasonable and could be predicted and the evidence of impossibility was not demonstrated, i.e. that roads could not be improved, alternative routes were not available, or smaller trucks could not be used to transport the oil to market.
13 Id.
14 Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars (subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope) (1977).
15 See Welsch v. Trivestco Energy Co., 221 P.3d 609 (Kan. App. 2009) (bankruptcy of a gas purchaser is covered by the shut-in royalty clause, not the force majeure clause. The unavailability of purchasing and transportation services did not prevent the lessee from paying shut-in royalties and the force majeure clause was not triggered).
16 Trinidad Petroleum Corp. v. Pioneer Natural Gas Co., 416 So. 2d 290 (La. Ct. App. 1982, writ denied).
17 The habendum clause sets forth the term of the lease. It typically divides the lease into the primary term of a fixed number of years and the secondary term “for so long thereafter as oil or gas is produced.” See Trent Maxwell, “The Habendum Clause – ‘Til Production Ceases Do Us Part,” The Oil and Gas Report, Fee Lease 101 Series, www.theoilandgasreport.com.
18 Aukema v. Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC, 904 F. Supp. 2d 199 (N.D.N.Y. 2012); Beardslee v. Inflection Energy, LLC, 904 F. Supp. 2d 213 (N.D.N.Y. 2012). These cases were decided on the same day, by the same judge, with the same results. The court found that the moratorium did not prevent the lessees from performing under the leases and drilling by other methods, i.e. drilling a conventional vertical well. The lessees had the right to drill, but were not required to do so; it was merely an option and “invocation of a force majeure clause to relieve them from their contractual duties is unnecessary.” Beardslee, 904 F. Supp. 2d at 220. The Beardslee decision was appealed by the lessees.
19 The New York Court of Appeals, being New York’s highest appellate state court.
20 Beardslee v. Inflection Energy, LLC, 761 F.3d 221 (2nd Cir. 2014).
21 Beardslee v. Inflection Energy LLC, 31 N.E.3d 80 (N.Y. 2015).
22 Beardslee v. Inflection Energy, LLC, 798 F.3d 90 (2nd Cir. 2015).
23 Darth Vadar, Star Wars (subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope) (1977)
24 Mora County, New Mexico was the first county in the United States to ban “any corporation to engage in the extraction of oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons within Mora County” and prohibiting the use of water for fracking, among other related activities. The District Court held that the ban was preempted by state law. SWEPI, LP v. Mora County, 2015 U.S. Dis. LEXIS 13496 (D.N.M. Jan. 19, 2015). Similarly, Fort Collins and Longmont, Colorado’s recent bans have also been held to be preempted by state law and outside their authority and struck down. City of Fort Collins v. Colo. Oil & Gas Assn, 2016 CO 28 (May 2, 2016); City of Longmont v. Colo Oil & Gas Assn, 2016 CO 29 (May 2, 2016).
25 Hillary Clinton outlines a series of conditions on fracking stating, “You know, I don’t support it when any locality or any state is against it…. I don’t think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.” The New York Times, “Transcript of the Democratic Presidential Debate in Flint, Mich,” March 6, 2016. Bernie Sanders advocates for a total ban on fracking, “We need to put an end to fracking not only in New York and Vermont, but all over this country.” The New York Times, “Bernie Sanders Proposes Fracking Ban and Attacks Hilary Clinton on the Environment,” April 11, 2016.
26 Canadian Business, “Leaders Ask Oregon, Washington Governors to Ban Oil-by-Train,” June 14, 2016.

Pugh(eee)…Get Those Lands Outta Here: A Look at the Pugh Clause

For the unwary, Pugh clauses (pronounced “Pew”) can sometimes stink.  Although it is a fairly common provision in many fee oil and gas leases today, there is no industry standard Pugh clause.[1] As a result, the many variations of the Pugh clause can provide unpleasant surprises to both lessors and lessees who assume that all Pugh clauses operate similarly.  From an industry perspective, it is essential for landmen negotiating oil and gas leases to understand how a Pugh clause will operate an­­­­d potentially affect other provisions in the lease.  Additionally, with the sharp decrease in oil prices, many oil and gas companies have pushed drilling schedules into the indefinite future.  The delay in drilling necessitates a careful review of the underlying lease portfolios to determine when certain leases will expire. A thorough understanding of the effect of a  Pugh clause’s on a lease is vital to this review.

So What Is It?

As a general rule, production, or other operations, on “any part of the land, included in an oil and gas lease will perpetuate the lease beyond the primary term as to all of the land covered by the lease.”[2] Moreover, if lands are pooled or unitized, production or operations on any of the lands within the unit can extend all leases committed in whole, or in part, to the drilling or spacing unit.[3] This means that an oil and gas lease can be held past its primary term by production on only a small portion of the leased lands or on lands outside of the leased lands that are located in a drilling or spacing unit. Understandably, lessors can be less than thrilled to discover that all of their lands are locked-up by a lease when only a small portion of their lands are included within a drilling or spacing unit—preventing them from re-leasing their non-producing lands so that they can receive additional bonus payments, rentals, or production royalties from these lands. Without an “express provision in the lease, the lessor only has recourse to the implied covenant of reasonable development (or further exploration in a state that recognizes such a covenant)” to force additional development on the lessor’s lands or allow them to re-lease the lands altogether.[4]

A Pugh clause can prevent this scenario. Named after a Louisiana lawyer named Lawrence Pugh,[5]  the Pugh clause operates to sever the non-producing lands or interval based on some defined criteria, such as acreage or depth.[6] The impact of a Pugh clause “increases the burdens on the lessee who must take additional steps to maintain the lease as to the [non-producing portion]; this may include a return to delay rentals,” (if the lease is not a paid-up lease), “or initiation of drilling operations within a specified period.”[7] In other words, by including a Pugh clause in a lease, any production located on or attributed to leased lands will no longer be sufficient to extend the primary term for the entire leasehold. If the lessee takes no actions to extend the lease excluded by operation of the Pugh clause, the lease will expire as to these excluded lands. This provides an obvious benefit to lessors, who can once again make the forfeited lands available for lease. Since Pugh clauses are decidedly pro-lessor, they are “virtually always inserted into or attached to a lease at the insistence of the lessor’s attorney.”[8]

Horizontal and Vertical Pugh Clauses

It is important to note that Pugh clauses can be horizontal, vertical, or both.  A horizontal Pugh clause “has the effect of severing a leasehold as to the pooled and non-pooled portions on the basis of horizontal planes,” while a vertical Pugh clause “has the effect of severing a leasehold on the basis of vertical planes only.”[9] This means a Pugh clause can be structured by depth (e.g., severing all lands below 100 feet of a drilled well or the bottom of the producing zone), or by acreage.

Give Me An Example

Because there is no industry standard Pugh clause, there can be as many different forms of the clause as there are people drafting the clause.  The following is an example of a generic Pugh clause:

A producing well, or well capable of producing, will perpetuate this lease beyond its Primary Term ONLY as to those lands as are located within, or committed to, a producing or spacing unit established by Government authority having jurisdiction.[10]

This provision in an oil and gas lease operates to segregate the lease at the end of the primary term according to whether the leased lands were within a drilling or spacing unit established by the appropriate government agency. Any lands not located within a drilling or spacing unit would not be extended by production (keeping in mind, of course, that these lands could be extended by other provisions in the lease, such as those pertaining to drilling operations). As a title examiner, it’s not uncommon to see other triggering criteria in a Pugh Clause—such as one or two years after the end of the primary term, or when drilling operations on any portion of the leased lands cease for a specified amount of time.

It’s crucial to clearly specify how and when the clause will come into play, as illustrated by the following real-life Pugh clause:

Notwithstanding anything to the contrary herein, this lease shall terminate after the primary term as to all the lands not included within a drill site spaced unit as provided by the proper Governmental Authority….

This Pugh clause is poorly drafted because it segregates the leased lands only on the basis of whether they are within a “drill site spaced unit,” without clearly specifying that the spaced units must also be producing in order for the lease to be extended beyond its primary term for those lands.  Read literally, the provision raises the question of whether a lease would be extended for lands that are merely subject to a spacing order (and thus presumably within a drill site spaced unit) when there is no production within the drilling or spacing unit, assuming that there is production elsewhere on the lease lands, as was the case in this instance.[11] Although it’s likely that the parties to the lease intended that the clause include a production requirement, it’s uncertain how a court would rule if this clause was litigated, particularly since Pugh clauses tend to be strictly construed.[12]

Problematic Pugh clauses, such as the example above, often arise when the Pugh clause is merely copied and pasted from another oil and gas lease, which can result in omitted words or phrases, or inconsistencies with other provisions of the lease. Problems can also arise when a Pugh clause is drafted by a person who does not fully understand the impact of words or phrases included in, or excluded from, the provision.

Be Careful

As illustrated by the poorly drafted Pugh clause above, not all Pugh clauses are created equal, and it’s important to review and understand the specifics of a Pugh clause when negotiating an oil and gas lease, or when later evaluating how a Pugh clause affects the extension of a lease.

 


[1] 1 Bruce M. Kramer and Patrick H. Martin, The Law of Pooling and Unitization, § 9.01 (LexisNexis Matthew Bender 2015), hereinafter referred to as “Pooling and Unitization,” citing Robin Forte, “Helpful Hints: The ‘Pugh’ Clause,” 42 Landman 9 (May/June 1997) (“Just as there is no standard oil and gas lease, today there is no standard ‘Pugh’ clause.”).
[2] Adams, James W., Jr., “Lease Issues for Opinion Purposes,” Nuts and Bolts of Mineral Title Examination, Paper 11, Page No. 517 (Rocky Mt. Min. L. Fdn. 2015), hereinafter referred to as “Lease Issues”.
[3] Id.
[4] Pooling and Unitization § 9.01.  For a discussion on the implied covenant to develop as it relates to Montana law, see Miller, Adrian, “The Implied Covenant to Drill and Develop in Montana,” available at:  https://www.hollandhart.com/implied-covenant-to-drill-and-develop-in-montana.
[5] Pooling and Unitization § 9.01, ft. 3.
[6] Patrick H. Martin and Bruce M. Kramer, Williams & Meyers, Oil and Gas Law § 669 (LexisNexis Matthew Bender 2015), hereinafter referred to as “Oil and Gas Law.”
[7] Pooling and Unitization § 9.01.
[8] Pooling and Unitization § 9.04.
[9] Oil and Gas Law § H Terms. According to one commentator, the terms “horizontal Pugh clause” and “vertical Pugh clause” are often mistaken with one another and, as a result, are used somewhat interchangeably within the industry.  Consequently, the commentator suggests that Pugh clause should clarify whether the provision affects depth or acreage. See http://landmaninsider.com/pugh-clauses/.
[10] This example is given in Lease Issues, p. 518.
[11] The question regarding this Pugh clause’s operation might be even more muddled in some states, such as New Mexico, which have standard spacing requirements.  See N.M. Admin. Code 19.15.15.
[12] Pooling and Unitization § 9.01. The treatise notes, however, that “strict construction is by no means uniform,” and “a few courts have seemed almost eager to interpret such provisions in favor of the lessor through readings that do not appear entirely reasonable.”  Id.