Texas Supreme Court holds the accommodation doctrine applies to groundwater leases

Coyote Lake Ranch, LLC v City of Lubbock, 14-0572 (Tex. May 27, 2016)

This is a dispute over a groundwater lease owned by the City and whether the accommodation doctrine (which is founded in oil and gas law) applies. The Texas Supreme Court held that it does.

Coyote Lake Ranch is used primarily for agriculture, raising cattle, and recreational hunting. In 1953, the Ranch sold a groundwater lease to the City of Lubbock to help it combat a massive drought. In 2012, the City announced plans to increase water-extraction efforts on the Ranch, possibly drilling as many as 20 test wells. The Ranch objected noting that mowing or removing vegetation from the surface causes destructive wind erosion, exacerbated by cattle tromping over mowed paths. According to the Ranch, wind, drought, and grazing cattle prevent grass from growing back, particularly in the areas the City mowed. The trial court enjoined the City from further efforts to drill wells. The Court of Appeals reversed holding the accommodation doctrine did not apply.

An oil-and-gas lessee has an implied right to use the land but must exercise that right with due regard for the landowner’s rights. This is the accommodation doctrine. It has never before been extended to a groundwater lease. The Court analyzed the lease language and noted that the different interpretations presented by the parties provide extremes on both sides. The Ranches interpretation could severely restrict the City’s drilling activities if the City could only drill where the Ranch deemed appropriate. The City’s interpretation would mean it has an all but an absolute right to use the surface heedless of avoidable injury, although it must answer for damages caused to the surface. Going back to the concept of mineral separation interests the Court held the mineral and surface estates must exercise their respective rights with due regard for the other’s rights. After going through the history of the accommodation doctrine, the Court held the doctrine should be applied to groundwater leases. The Court then noted the injunction was too prohibitive, however, and remanded the case for further processing in the trial court.

Chief Justice Hecht delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justice Green, Justice Johnson, Justice Guzman, Justice Devine and Justice Brown joined. Justice Boyd delivered a concurring opinion, in which Justice Willett and Justice Lehrmann joined.