“Tres-Frac” Liability and the Legal Transformation of Geologic Shales into Natural Resources through the Texas Supreme Court Case Coastal v. Garza

Authors: Trey Murphy*, University of North Carolina
Topics: Energy, Environment, Legal Geography
Keywords: Mineral Rights, Texas, Legal Geography, Property, Fracking
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 40
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

The United States is one of the world’s largest producer of hydrocarbons. A group of stakeholders who will benefit from this production are subsurface property owners. Yet, mineral ownership is complex in that subterranean property boundaries function differently from the surface. For over a century, the courts have applied the rule of capture to oil and gas production, which encourages extraction regardless of the effect on nearby mineral estates. However, many lawyers thought hydraulic fracturing (i.e., fracking) would force a change to the rule of capture. This research seeks to answer: How does the law engage with materiality when turning subterranean natures into resources? Texas, the leading global producer of fracked hydrocarbon, uses the courtroom to clarify subsurface property disputes. One of the most consequential Texas Supreme Court cases on property in decades, Coastal v. Garza, established a rule of capture approach for shale formations. Based on archival research and semi-structured interviews conducted from 2017 to 2019, I identify the major Texas laws surrounding mineral estate boundaries. Second, I detail the bizarre history of the Coastal ruling. Through the courtroom deliberations, I note how the litigants were able to rescript private property trespass into a public good, therefore eliminating property boundaries for some drilling operations. I conclude by noting how the Coastal decision will have ramifications for property owners and oil production for years to come.

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