An Introduction to Federal Oil and Gas Leasing

The federal government is responsible for oil and gas leasing under three different types of land: onshore public lands, offshore public lands, and tribal lands. For purposes of this series, we will focus on onshore public lands and, more specifically, those under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”). Below is a brief history of federal oil and gas leasing, a summary of the most common types of oil and gas leases administered by the BLM (renewal / exchange leases, public domain leases, and right-of-way leases), and a basic outline of the federal oil and gas leasing process today.

History of federal leasing. Prior to the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 (“MLA”), the development of oil and gas on public lands was done by making a placer location under the General Mining Act of 1872. Since the MLA was passed, oil and gas on public lands has been developed by leasing. Specifically, the MLA originally authorized the issuance of competitive leases for lands within a known geologic structure (“KGS”) of a producing oil or gas field and prospecting permits for lands not within a KGS, until the Act of August 21, 1935, which replaced prospecting permits with non-competitive leases. Although the MLA was amended numerous times, the basic framework remained the same from 1935 to 1987, when the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act (“FOOGLRA”) was passed. In addition to the numerous amendments to the MLA and FOOGLRA, Congress also passed additional laws affecting oil and gas development, including the Multiple Mineral Development Act of 1954, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the Federal Oil and Gas Royalty Management Act of 1982, and the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

Renewal and exchange leases. Renewal and exchange leases are generally found only in very old oil and gas fields. As discussed above, under the original MLA, the BLM issued oil and gas prospecting permits for lands not within a KGS. Upon a valuable discovery of oil or gas, the permittee became entitled to obtain a lease on the greater of 160 acres or 1/4th of the permit area and a preferential right to lease the remainder of the permit area. Under the MLA, such earned leases, as well as competitive leases issued before 1935, had 20-year fixed terms with no Habendum clause (i.e., no “and so long thereafter” language), but the lessee had a preferential right to a “renewal lease” for a fixed successive period of 10 years. Renewal leases were subject to certain requirements, such as a limitation on existing overriding royalty interests of 5%. There is no limit on the amount of times a renewal lease could be renewed, although a 1990 amendment to the MLA now provides that a renewal lease renewed after November 15, 1990 will continue for 20 years and so long thereafter. Due to the uncertainty of operating under a fixed term lease, subsequent amendments to the MLA also authorized the lessee of any 20-year lease (including renewals of such leases) or any lease issued before August 8, 1946 to exchange the lease for an “exchange lease” with the customary Habendum clause. Because they involve oil and gas leases issued prior to 1946, there are few active renewal and exchange leases today.

Public domain leases. Public domain leases are the most common federal oil and gas leases. They cover lands or mineral deposits owned by the United States that were never granted to the state, patented into fee ownership, or disposed of under any public land law (there are certain exceptions, such as lands incorporated by cities, towns, or villages, lands in national parks, monuments, or reserves, or lands in wilderness areas or wilderness study areas). They can also cover acquired lands – lands patented into fee ownership and subsequently reacquired by the federal government – if consented to by the surface managing agency. Public domain leases are authorized under the MLA. However, because of the numerous amendments to the MLA, the history and terms of such leases vary significantly. For example, the primary term, rentals, and royalties depend on several factors, including: whether the lease was issued competitively or non-competitively, the period of time in which the lease was issued, and the period in time in which the rental or royalty was required. As a result, it is important to review the lease to confirm the terms of a public domain lease. Where the original grant of the lease has been lost or destroyed, a review and understanding of the history of the MLA and applicable regulations becomes necessary. Because most oil and gas leases issued today are public domain leases, we discuss current leasing of public domain lands in the final section of this article below.

Right-of-way leases. The lands under federal rights-of-way, not subject to an oil and gas lease at the time the right-of-way was issued, may only be leased under the Right-of-Way Leasing Act of 1930 (the ROW Act). Although the ROW Act appears to include all rights-of-way, the BLM typically only issues right-of-way leases under railroads and reservoirs. Under the ROW Act, the right-of-way owner is the only party that may lease the lands, but an owner or lessee of the oil and gas rights in the adjoining lands may submit a compensatory royalty bid and the BLM will issue either a right-of-way lease to the right-of-way owner or a compensatory royalty agreement to the adjoining owner or lessee, whichever is the most advantageous to the United States. Because of the limited instances where lands fall under this category, right-of-way leases are less common than public domain leases.

Oil and gas leasing today. The MLA, as amended, and FOOGLRA still govern the leasing of public domain lands for oil and gas today. Such leasing is accomplished as follows:

  • Lands available for oil and gas leasing are nominated
  • The BLM selects tracts to be included in an upcoming lease sale
  • Notice of the lease sale is made
  • The BLM considers any protests filed and makes a final list of included tracts
  • The lease sale is held and the tracts are offered for oral bidding
  • The BLM issues a lease on each tract to the highest qualified bidder

In the event any tract does not receive any bids or the minimum acceptable bid, the tract becomes available to be leased non-competitively for a period of two years following the lease sale to the first qualified applicant. The current lease terms for both newly issued competitive and non-competitive oil and gas leases are a primary term of 10 years, a royalty interest of 12.5%, and rentals of $1.50 per acre for the first five years, then $2 per acre thereafter. After a discovery on the leased lands, a minimum royalty of not less than the annual rental is due in lieu of the annual rental.