On April 2, 2018, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a potentially groundbreaking decision by holding that trespass and conversion claims arising from hydraulic fracturing are not precluded by the rule of capture. In reaching this conclusion, the court found that the Southwestern Energy Production Company (“Southwestern”) may have committed trespass when it extracted natural gas located under neighboring properties by draining the gas through fissures created from hydrofracturing fluid. Such a holding was almost universally thought to be precluded by the rule of capture. The rule of capture, which can be traced back to 18th century fox hunting, has historically been applied to find that oil and gas companies cannot be held liable for “capturing” oil and gas that drain naturally from neighboring land as a result of legal extraction activities. In differentiating hydraulic fracking from traditional oil and gas extraction, the court focused on the fact that hydraulic fracking actually pumps fluid across property lines to open up non-natural fissures that allow the natural gas to seep back across the property to be extracted.
The potential impact of the Pennsylvania court’s decision has spurred high levels of concern from the greater fracking industry. On the same day that Southwestern filed an appeal requesting an en banc rehearing of the decision, seven separate industry trade groups filed leave with the court seeking permission to file amicus briefs urging the court to grant Southwestern the rehearing. One of these groups, the Marcellus Shale Coalition (“MSC”), is a collection of approximately 200 producers, midstream, and local supply-chain companies that produce more than 95% of the natural gas in Pennsylvania. The group has asserted that the April 2nd ruling interrupts well-established law and creates an “unprecedented form of tort liability” that threatens the entire industry. In a similar filing, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry stressed that the decisions could have devastating effects on the industry and the economy of Pennsylvania. According to the American Petroleum Institute, the hydraulic fracking industry currently provides an estimated 322,600 jobs to Pennsylvania and contributes nearly $44.5 million in revenue to the state’s economy.
In Southwestern’s own appeal, the company echoed many of the concerns proclaimed by the industry. The company stressed that the decision would “unleash a torrent of speculative lawsuits” that could threaten the economic livelihood of the industry throughout the state. The company also characterized the April 2nd ruling as an impractical precedent for future decisions. Southwestern noted that the opinion would require courts and juries to speculate whether hydrofracturing fluid located miles below the surface ever moved onto neighboring property, which is a task the company portrayed as “a fool’s errand.”
The ultimate resolution of the matter has potentially far-reaching impacts on the U.S. energy markets. Behind Texas, Pennsylvania is the United States’ second largest producer of natural gas. The state generated 19 percent of the United States’ total output in 2017 and has seen steady gains in production output since 2010. Further, the decision raises questions about whether other state courts may adopt the logic of the Pennsylvania Superior Court and similarly hold that trespass and conversion claims against hydraulic fracking are not precluded by the historic rule of capture.