Our opinion: Arguing over the estate

It’s known as a split estate, and it’s especially common in these parts.

That’s when a surface owner doesn’t own the mineral (subsurface) rights to his or her property. In most cases, determining whether the estate has been split is a fairly simple matter of examining the existing deed or doing a title search.

However, in the early heyday of oil and gas extraction in the world’s oldest oil and gas fields, recording property ownership wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. Some records are confusing. Some don’t exist at all.

And, in subsequent years, as generations passed and children passed on their parents’ property bequests and divided them among children over succeeding generations, the ownership of subsurface rights could become muddied.

The situation is sometimes a double-edged sword for oil and gas producers looking to lease or even purchase those rights.

There are a couple pieces of legislation that have been discussed in the state General Assembly that attempt to bring some order to the chaos, if that chaos even exists.

The proposals have received mixed reviews from landowners and oil and gas producers alike.

There is an existing law in Pennsylvania called the Dormant Oil and Gas Act that attempts to permit the extraction of oil and gas when all of the owners of the subsurface rights cannot be located or identified. It provides for the creation of a trust and appointment of a trustee to oversee the rights and collect royalties from the developer. Those proceeds would then be shared by those with “correlative rights” to the subsurface. That is, those who have established ownership of pools of subsurface minerals to the property in question. It does not confer upon the surface owner any subsurface rights.

There is a proposal to amend that act that would, indeed, confer upon the surface owner the subsurface rights if those rights are deemed abandoned for 20 years.

However, the owner of correlative rights” would have the ability to simply file with the local Recorder of Deeds a notice of interest in the rights to preserve ownership.

We believe the amendment is unnecessary. If the subsurface rights have been severed and are clearly not contained in the title to the surface, we don’t believe that dormancy should result in a transfer of ownership, any more than we believe that the surface ownership should be transfered to a subsurface owner if it’s dormant for a given amount of time.

If anything, such an amendment would muddy the legal waters of property ownership and result in pell mell deed filings not unlike the Oklahoma land rush.

To use a phrase made popular by Bert Lance (you remember Bert Lance, don’t you?) “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”