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What is a Federal Right-of-Way Lease for Oil and Gas?

As mentioned in the first article published in “The FAQs of Federal Oil and Gas Leases” series,[1] the oil and gas under certain federal rights-of-way can only be leased under the Right-of-Way Leasing Act. Unbeknownst to some lessees, their federal oil and gas lease[2] may not cover all the lands described in the lease if there is a right-of-way on the lands that was issued prior to the lease. Sometimes the federal oil and gas lease will specifically exclude the right-of-way lands, leaving the lessee wondering how to lease the excluded lands. The only way to lease the oil and gas under a right-of-way granted before the issuance of a federal oil and gas lease is pursuant to the Right-of-Way Leasing Act as discussed below.[3]

Background. The problem with whether or not a federal oil and gas lease covers the lands within a federal right-of-way stems from a series of decisions issued around the turn of the 20th century.[4] Certain rights-of-way acts were held to grant to the right-of-way owner a “limited fee,” rather than fee simple or mere easement. The right-of-way owner actually owns the right-of-way lands, subject to the ownership reverting back to the United States if the right-of-way owner quits using the land for the granted purposes.[5] Based on those decisions, the Department of Interior took the position that it did not have sufficient incidents of ownership in the lands upon which to issue federal oil and gas leases under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, but it did have sufficient incidents of ownership to prevent the leasing of such lands by the right-of-way owner.

As a result, Congress passed the Act of May 21, 1930 (the “1930 Act” or “Right-of-Way Leasing Act”),[6] providing that the Secretary of Interior is authorized to “lease deposits of oil and gas in or under lands embraced in railroad or other rights of way acquired under any law of the United States, whether the same be a base fee or mere easement; Provided, That, … no lease shall be executed hereunder except to the … [owner] by whom such right of way was acquired, or to the lawful successor, assignee, or transferee of such [owner]….[7] The original regulation implementing the 1930 Act contained the same broad language of the 1930 Act. However, in 1983, the Department of the Interior amended its regulations in an apparent attempt to limit the effect of the 1930 Act. Specifically, the relevant regulation states, and still provides, that the government will exercise its authority under the 1930 Act:

only with respect to railroad rights-of-way and easements issued pursuant either to the Act of March 3, 1875 (43 U.S.C. 934 et seq.), or pursuant to earlier railroad right-of-way statutes, and with respect to rights-of-way and easements issued pursuant to the Act of March 3, 1891 (43 U.S.C. 946 et seq.).[8] The oil and gas underlying any other right-of-way or easement is included within any oil and gas lease issued pursuant to the Act[9] which covers the lands within the right-of-way….[10]

In addition to limiting the effect of the 1930 Act, the 1983 amendments were issued to apparently confirm the Department of Interior’s understanding of the caselaw, i.e. the 1930 Act applied only to limited fee rights-of-way, and to apparently confirm its past practices. Notably, the amended regulation conflicts with the 1930 Act’s provision that it applies to “other rights of way acquired under any law of the United States, whether the same be a base fee or mere easement.” Regardless, we are not aware of any case in which the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) has issued a lease for a right-of-way other than those granted under the railroad acts or reservoir act identified in the regulation above.

How It Works. The owner of the right-of-way has the right to apply for an oil and gas lease or assign its right to apply for the lease to a third party. The owner, or its assignee, must file an application with the BLM along with the applicable fee. The standard Form 3100-11 Offer to Lease and Lease for Oil and Gas is used with adjustments made by BLM personnel for the necessary references to the 1930 Act and specific requirements of the Act. If the right-of-way owner has assigned its preferential right to lease, the application must include an executed copy of the assignment of the right. The application should detail: the facts of the ownership of the right-of-way and of the assignment, if applicable; the development of oil or gas in adjacent or nearby lands, including the location and depth of the wells, production, and probability of drainage of the oil and gas in the right-of-way; and a description of the right-of-way, including at least each legal subdivision through which a portion of the right-of-way is to be leased passes.

Once the BLM determines that leasing of the right-of-way lands is consistent with the public interest, either upon consideration of an application or on its own motion, it will serve notice on the owner or lessee of the oil and gas in the adjoining lands. Although the adjoining owners or lessees are not entitled to an oil and gas lease for the right-of-way lands, they do have the preferential right to submit a bid for a compensatory royalty they would agree to pay for producing the oil and gas beneath the right-of-way lands from a well drilled on the adjoining lands. The compensatory royalty would be paid to the United States in lieu of it issuing a lease to the right-of-way owner or its assignee. A compensatory royalty agreement is to be on a form approved by the Director. The owner of the right-of-way, or its assignee, is given the same period of time to submit its bid for the royalty interest rate is willing it pay if the lease is issued. The royalty cannot be for less than 12.5%.

If the adjoining owners submit compensatory royalty bids, the right-of-way lease or the compensatory royalty agreement shall be awarded to the offer that is most advantageous to the United States.  If a lease is awarded, the term shall not be more than 20 years.

Be Alert. When dealing with lands owned by the United States, landmen and title examiners should be on alert for the existence of any rights-of-way pre-dating a federal oil and gas lease and the possibility the right-of-way lands are unleased. Considering the BLM’s current practice of only issuing 1930 Act leases for railroad and reservoir rights-of-way as described in the above regulation, the federal oil and gas lessee is unable to fully secure a valid leasehold interest in lands under all other types of rights-of-way. Under those circumstances, the lessee should take action to protect itself against the conflict between the 1930 Act and its regulations, possible trespass claim, and a compensatory royalty bidding war.


[1] D. Hatch, “What are the Types of Federal Oil and Gas Leases?” The Oil & Gas Report, April 4, 2017.

[2] The vast majority of federal oil and gas leases are issued pursuant to the Mineral Leasing Act of February 25, 1920, as amended. For purposes of this article, reference to a “federal oil and gas lease” will mean a lease issued under the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act.

[3] If a right-of-way is granted after the issuance of a federal oil and gas lease, the federal oil and gas lease will cover the oil and gas under the right-of-way lands.

[4] See Northern Pac. Ry. v. Townsend, 190 U.S. 267, 271-72 (1903); Rio Grande Western Ry. Co. v. Stringham, 239 U.S. 44, 47 (1915); Windsor Reservoir & Canal Co. v. Miller, 51 I.D. 27, 34 (1925).

[5] Subsequent decisions have clarified that the property interest granted under such right-of-way statutes is an easement rather than a limited fee. See Great Northern Ry. Co. v. United States, 315 U.S. 262, 279 (1942); Solicitor Opinion, 67 Pub. Lands Dec. 225 (1960)

[6] 30 U.S.C. §§ 301 to 306.

[7] 30 U.S.C. § 301 (emphasis added).

[8] The Act of March 3, 1891, pertains to rights-of way for irrigation canals, ditches, and reservoirs (hereinafter referred to as the “reservoir rights-of-way”) .

[9] Typically, the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920.

[10] 43 CFR § 3109.1-1 (emphasis added).

Copyright Holland & Hart LLP 1995-2017.

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About this Author

Angela Franklin, oil gas mining legal advisor, Holland hart lawyer law firm
Partner

Ms. Franklin has over 24 years experience representing oil, gas and mining clients in virtually all types of acquisition, divestiture, exploration and production transactions. With experience in matters involving both public and private lands, clients engage Ms. Franklin to find practical solutions to their business needs. She is from a multi-generational oil and gas family that gives her a deeper understanding of the industry.

Ms. Franklin has extensive experience with title examination of private, Federal, State and Indian lands throughout the...

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