Adam Briggs, Paula Briggs, Joshua Briggs, and Sarah H. Briggs are all owners of property in Harford Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Their property lays adjacent to property leased by Southwestern Energy (SWN), a U.S. natural gas and energy company.
On Nov. 5, 2015 the Briggs filed a complaint against SWN with the Susquehanna County Court of Common Pleas, asserting counts of trespass and conversion, and punitive damages. They alleged that SWN’s activities of hydraulic fracking on SWN’s property had caused natural gas to drain from underneath the Briggs’ property into SWN’s wells and was done so intentionally. SWN countered claiming that Briggs’ complaint was barred by the rule of capture. The rule of capture stipulates that the owner of a property is entitled to the oil and gas produced from the wells on their land even if it may be the case that the oil or gas migrated from adjoining lands. On Aug. 8, 2017, the trial court granted SWN’s move for summary judgment and rejected the Briggs’ motion for partial summary judgment. By moving forward with summary judgment, the case was decided without the use of a jury trial. The trial court concluded that the rule of capture applied even in cases of hydraulic fracking.
Pennsylvania law had not yet determined whether hydraulic fracking constituted legal trespass, which by its required process most likely could result in the withdrawal of natural gas from underneath adjacent property. On April 2, 2018, the Briggs filed an appeal with the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. The appeal was based on the question of whether the rule of capture applied in the case of hydraulic fracking. The Superior Court rejected the precedent set in Coastal Oil & Gas Corp. v. Garza Energy Trust (2008) which held that a landowner cannot file complaints based upon an assumption or possibility of trespass from hydraulic fracking. While the Superior Court addressed that hydraulic fracking may indicate trespass liability, they acknowledged the lack of evidence of any subsurface intrusion in the Briggs’ case. The court concluded that there are “distinctions between hydraulic fracturing and conventional gas drilling”; so, that the rule of capture does not apply to hydraulic fracking.
SWN appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. On Jan. 22, 2020, the Supreme Court came to the decision that the rule of capture safeguards the developer from liability claims in cases where the developer engages in hydraulic fracking on the property it owns and subsequently causes it to obtain oil or gas from the property of another person. The court concluded “that the rule of capture remains extant in Pennsylvania”.
In January 2021 the rules of trespass continue to be up for debate. The case was returned on remand by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to the Superior Court. The Superior Court decided to align with the previous decision made in the Susquehanna County trial court.
To some, the decision made in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may be a disappointment given the fact that due to the innate process of hydraulic fracking, there could be a significant possibility of hydraulic fracking from SWN’s property causing drainage of oil from underneath the Briggs’ land. Conversely, the previous decision made in the Pennsylvania Superior Court could have created drastic impacts for the oil and gas industries in Pennsylvania. In the opinion made by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, plaintiffs can continue to bring forth claims of trespass by hydraulic fracking. However, that could lead to years of drawn out court and legal costs as exemplified by the Briggs’ case.
Madeleine McLean is from Arlington, VA, studying History