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Legal Dry Holes: How Interest Groups in a 2008 Texas Supreme Court Case Framed Fracking

Authors: Trey Murphy*, University of North Carolina
Topics: Energy, Legal Geography, United States
Keywords: Law, Oil, Texas, Critical Legal Geography, Property, Materiality
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The United States is the world’s largest producer and a net exporter of petroleum. A group of stakeholders who will benefit from this production are subsurface property owners. Yet, US subsurface ownership is complex in that subterranean property functions differently from the surface. For nearly half a century, the courts in the US have struggled to apply a clear legal doctrine to concerns of subsurface property relative to fracking, yet this changed with a consequential Texas Supreme Court case, Coastal v. Garza (2008), which clarified ownership of shale resources. This paper seeks to understand how courtroom litigants framed fracking using geologic shale's characteristics. I also illuminate how courtroom interest groups examined fracking as a "public good," therefore deserving of unique property policies that encourage production. Texas, the leading global producer of fracked hydrocarbons and third largest producer of oil in the world, uses the courtroom to clarify subsurface property disputes. This case has been copied into legal decisions in other oil producing US states. Based on archival research and semi-structured interviews, I detail the bizarre history of the Coastal ruling. I also note how Coastal will have ramifications for property owners and oil production for years to come while also having the potential to script future legal resource claims beyond oil and gas. This research pushes investigations of energy and materiality to critically engage courtroom contexts while being attentive to the impacts of these rulings on the energy policy landscape.

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