August 14, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: Oil and Gas Commission’s Warrantless Inspections of Locations Does Not Violate Constitution

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Maralex Resources, Inc. v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on Thursday, March 22, 2018.

Administrative Law—Constitutional Law—Fourth Amendment—Search and Seizure—Warrantless Search—Administrative Search.

O’Hare was the president of Maralex, a Colorado corporation licensed to conduct oil and gas operations in the state. Maralex operated over 200 oil wells in Colorado. Maralex operated wells located on the O’Hares’ ranch. The O’Hares owned both the surface and mineral rights, but leased the mineral rights to Maralex. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) obtained an administrative search warrant authorizing entry and inspection of certain Maralex locations, and after conducting inspections, COGCC issued multiple notices of alleged violations to Maralex and O’Hare. After an administrative hearing, the COGCC issued an order finding violation (OFV), concluding that Maralex had violated several rules, and Maralex was assessed a penalty of $94,000. Maralex and the O’Hares sought judicial review of COGCC’s order. The district court denied their request for injunctive and declaratory relief and affirmed the OFV in full.

On appeal, Maralex and the O’Hares contended that COGCC Rule 204 permitting unannounced, warrantless searches of oil and gas locations violated the U.S. and Colorado Constitutions. There are exceptions to the requirement that searches be conducted pursuant to a warrant issued upon probable cause. One exception is in the context of administrative searches made pursuant to a regulatory scheme of a closely regulated industry. A warrantless inspection conducted pursuant to a regulatory scheme of a closely regulated industry is reasonable if (1) the scheme is informed by a substantial government interest, (2) it is necessary to further that government interest, and (3) the scheme provides a “constitutionally adequate substitute” for a warrant. The Court of Appeals concluded that the oil and gas industry is closely regulated; the state has a substantial interest in regulating oil and gas operations; warrantless searches are necessary to further the state’s substantial interest in the safe and efficient operation of oil and gas facilities; and COGCC’s inspection regime provides a constitutionally adequate substitute for a warrant. Therefore, warrantless inspections made pursuant to Rule 204 do not violate either the Colorado or U.S. Constitution.

The O’Hares also raised constitutional challenges to Rule 204 in their capacity as surface owners of land including oil and gas locations subject to COGCC oversight. They first contended that Rule 204 is unconstitutional as applied to surface owners because, unlike operators of oil and gas locations, they have an expectation of privacy in the property searched. In this case, the O’Hares granted Maralex a very broad set of rights under the surface agreement. By granting the corporation an unlimited easement on the surface estate, the O’Hares substantially lessened any objective expectation of privacy in the property over which they willingly transferred access and control rights to Maralex. The Court also rejected the O’Hares’ broader challenge to the facial constitutionality of Rule 204 as to all surface owners, concluding that where a surface owner grants a mineral lessee a broad surface easement, warrantless entry of the surface estate would not necessarily violate the surface owner’s rights.

Maralex also challenged the COGCC’s order concluding that it violated multiple rules in relation to certain wells. The COGCC’s finding that Maralex violated Rule 204 on March 20, 2014 was arbitrary and capricious because the inspection supervisor agreed to delay the inspection until the next day. Thus, there was not substantial evidence to support COGCC’s determination that Maralex failed to provide access to its wells at all reasonable times. As to the remaining dates at issue, the evidence supports COGCC’s determination that Maralex violated Rule 204 for the duration of that six-day period.

The Court also found record support for COGCC’s determination that Maralex violated Rules 603.f, 905(a), and 907(a)(1).

The district court’s order affirming that part of the OFV concluding Maralex violated Rule 204 on March 20, 2014 and the corresponding penalty were reversed. In all other respects, the order was affirmed. The case was remanded for further proceedings.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Town’s Fees Regarding Oil and Gas Wells Clearly Prohibited by Statute

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Town of Milliken v. Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas LP on Thursday, May 9, 2013.

Oil and Gas Well Safety and Security Inspection Fees—CRS § 34-60-106(15).

The Town of Milliken (Town) appealed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas Onshore LP (Kerr-McGee). The judgment was affirmed.

In 1983, the Town enacted a series of ordinances that imposed fees on oil and gas wells within its boundaries. In 1996, the General Assembly amended existing state oil and gas law by enacting House Bill 96-1045. As relevant here, the new legislation, codified in part at CRS § 34-60-106(15), states:

No local government may charge a tax or fee to conduct inspections or monitoring of oil and gas operations with regard to matters that are subject to rule, regulation, order, or permit condition administered by the [Oil and Gas Conservation] [C]ommission. Nothing in this subsection (15) shall affect the ability of a local government to charge a reasonable and nondiscriminatory fee for inspection and monitoring for road damage and compliance with local fire codes, land use permit conditions, and local building codes.

In 2003, the Town enacted another ordinance concerning oil and gas wells that authorized the Town to inspect wells, equipment, and structures to determine compliance with the land use code, the Town fire code, the Town building code, and all other Town health or safety standards. The Town imposed an annual $400 inspection fee for each well within its boundaries that had not been plugged or abandoned. It was undisputed that the Town has never conducted the inspections described. In 2008, the Town enacted an ordinance imposing an annual $400 security inspection fee on each active oil and gas well within its boundaries. The fee was intended to offset the costs incurred by the Town’s police department for additional security checks that the well sites require. It was undisputed that the Town’s police conducted such checks on a regular basis before 2003. In 2010, the Town repealed and replaced the portion of the land use code containing both of the above provisions and replaced it with a provision authorizing inspections of wells and an annual $400 security fee on active oil and gas wells within the Town’s boundaries.

In 2010, the Town sued Kerr-McGee and others seeking to collect the security fees from 2003 onward. Kerr-McGee moved for summary judgment, which was granted in its favor. The district court held that the Town lacked the statutory authority to impose the fees. The Town appealed.

The Court or Appeals found it patently clear that oil and gas well safety and security are matters subject to rule, regulation, order, or permit condition administered by the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Thus, the Town’s fees under all of the ordinances above are clearly prohibited. The summary judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here.

Colorado Supreme Court: Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Has Broad Authority to Promulgate Rules Governing Permitting Process

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission v. Grand Valley Citizens’ Alliance on June 25, 2012.

Application for Permit to Drill—Hearings.

Grand Valley Citizens’ Alliance filed a complaint alleging it was entitled to a hearing on an application for permit to drill pursuant to CRS § 34-60-108(7) of the Oil and Gas Conservation Act. The district court dismissed the complaint. The court of appeals reversed the district court’s judgment, holding that under subsection 108(7), Grand Valley was entitled to a hearing because it had a filed a petition on a matter within the jurisdiction of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment, holding that § 34-60-108(7) requires a hearing only for rules, regulations, and orders. Permits are governed by CRS § 34-60-106(1)(f), which grants the Commission broad authority to promulgate rules governing the permitting process, including the authority to determine who may request a hearing.

Summary and full case available here.