Moral Dilemma – Stuck in the Middle

Working as a surface landman presents challenges in ways I never imagined; mainly professional, but the personal challenges have been the most surprising. I am operating in a unique position where my employer (client) is paying me to maintain a working relationship with landowners. This means that I need to understand the landowners concerns, desires, and ultimate goals for their property. Some of these landowners are farmers or ranchers, and their main priority is preservation of their crop or herd. These situations are not usually a problem because there are certain considerations we can make to improve the property for their ultimate benefit (routing roads around crops/putting in new fences or cattle guards/etc). Other landowners have their property for a main residence. They are more difficult to deal with, because they will see our activity on a daily basis. Most of these landowners want to micromanage our operations, which presents a whole new mess of challenges. Lastly, we have landowners who own property for the purpose of hunting or just generally escaping the city on weekends. These can be the most difficult landowners to deal with because they do not generally need the money we are offering, nor do they want our operations on their land at all. Many of these landowners do not own minerals either, which further complicates the issue.

See the carrot? That’s me being nice.

When I get directions from Houston about needing a new surface location (for this example it’s a well pad), they will send me the desired coordinates for the surface hole locations. I typically plug those into Google Earth to get an idea of what the actual surface looks like. Often the coordinates are going to be on a fence line, pipeline, county road, inside the middle of a crop pivot, on top of an old well location, or otherwise inaccessible. After moving the pad around some, I generally come to 1 or 2 possible locations where the pad can “fit” as close to the original coordinates as possible. They give me a couple hundred feet to adjust things before I need to get clearance from Houston, so I can often go ahead with a staking from their original coordinates. Anything over the limit needs to be approved because it will affect the kickoff points on the horizontals. Most of the time I will schedule the staking and then notify the landowner of our proposed location. Some of the landowners I deal with don’t care to be bothered until there is an actual surface use plat for them to review. I have a couple of other considerations that play into my location choices, such as flowlines to the facility, sales lines from the facility to a tie in point/compressor station, disposal lines, electrical ROWs, access easements, environmental hazards, and the elevation change. Honestly, I think that Houston is under the impression that there is a team of engineers and environmental scientists reviewing and approving all of this data in the field. Nope, it’s just me. The landman.

Just your landman rockstar on a road trip to nowhere…

Once I have all of my approvals from the client, I get to the morally (some of it could be ethical) challenging aspect of the job. Justifying/explaining/notifying the landowners. As previously discussed, knowing these people’s concerns/desires, and ultimate goals is part of the job. I can generally tell you before contacting a landowner what (if any) their objections will be to a certain location. These potential objections are something I have already taken into consideration when I chose the location, so my counter arguments are something I have already gone over in my head. Sometimes those counter arguments are things I cannot change, such as limits on the length of flowlines to prevent paraffin buildup, or the radical change in elevation preventing us from moving the pad any further, etc. Other times the counter arguments are more objective. Maybe some clown in Houston decided that THIS location just looks better on the map, and they came up with some bullshit justification for using their location without ever caring or understanding that I am the one who ultimately has to “sell” their bullshit to the landowner. Sure, most of the time we don’t technically need the landowner’s approval, since we have valid Oil and Gas Leases that entitle us to use the surface estate to develop the underlying mineral estate which is dominant (at least in the State of Texas), but it is going to save everyone a lot of headaches and money to get the landowner to sign off on this before we end up fighting with them. Some of these landowners would file a lawsuit just on the principal of the matter, knowing full well that they will lose the case but hoping they can at least tie us up in court long enough that we ultimately cave to their demand or request.

We’re not all going to be friends, but don’t be an ass…

I approach each of these situations differently, given my unique understanding and relationship that I have with each landowner. When I am working on getting a landowner to approve a surface location they often ask questions. Most of the time I possess the answer but cannot divulge it because ultimately my client is the operator. These are the situations where I have to carefully weigh the options. Do I share confidential information in the hopes that the landowner trusts that I am telling them the truth and appreciate my honesty; or do I tell them I do not know the answer (makes me look dumb), or that I CANNOT answer (landowners ALWAYS make a snap judgement about this one). If I share too much information, essentially showing the landowner my cards, there is the real liability that they will use this information to fuck us over, ultimately costing me my job. The process of building trust with these landowners is not something that can be rushed, and all of the painstaking preparations in the world can be thrown out with a single misstep, and omitted piece of information, or even a hesitation when responding to a difficult question. Trust is reciprocal though, because I have to trust the landowners also. I can’t tell you how many times someone has thrown a wrench into my plans and I have actually felt betrayed because we had AGREED on a deal.

Just an ass being an ass

Sometimes my default “all of this is subject to change, our development plan is always evolving” buys me a bit of slack. Other times every negotiation is a battle. Over time, I find myself adjusting my approach not just to the individual landowner, but also how I deal with Houston on behalf of that landowner. You hear the term “I’m a big picture person” a lot in the oil business, because let’s be real, everyone wants to be a big picture person…the alternative sounds…small. Since I am stuck in between the operator and the landowner, I often end up being the only person who really sees the WHOLE picture. Houston assumes that their development plan is THE big picture, but never takes into account the actual land these locations will take up. A lot of the time this is something like the location for future pipelines, someone will say “why don’t we just run it straight through that part of this property?” I reply, “the landowner will not approve.” Sometimes this is enough to justify a longer proposed route, but other times someone will persist with the argument of “we don’t need their permission, right?” Here is my dilemma: the client is paying me to keep things running smoothly, and they want this pipeline to be shorter, but ultimately if I know the landowner would either file suit or potentially hold up future operations on their property, don’t I have an obligation to push for a compromise? Time and money are often synonymous in our business, saving us a couple of months adds up to huge monetary value. Advocating on behalf of the landowners wishes is something that they (hopefully) know that I do, but I cannot ever let them see behind the curtain. Many of these landowners have no idea how much or how often I have to fight to preserve their land, often solely risking my professional standing and employment. Trying to explain this to a landowner is a lost cause. They will either think I am grandstanding or they simply think it’s bullshit to get what I want. Explaining to Houston when they push back on an objection I have raised can be equally difficult. “He’s going to say no” is often not enough.

The grass is always greener on the other side…

There have been (thankfully) few situations where I have been pushed to the point of damn near breaking. A couple of months ago I told Houston that I had given my word to a landowner that we would not disturb that pasture on his property. Houston wanted to know where that provision was located in our Surface Use Agreement. I told them it was a verbal agreement, and that in fact by agreeing to not disturb that one pasture, I got us an additional 3 surface locations that were specifically NOT allowed by that Surface Use Agreement. “We see the amendment allowing the additional surface locations, but it doesn’t say anything about that pasture…he can’t say no, so just tell him this is what we are doing.” This issue got pushed to the point that I had to say, “I gave him my word that we would not do that, so if you really cannot do anything else to avoid disturbing that pasture, you have to find someone else to tell the landowner because I will not. He is most likely going to file suit, and good luck with those other locations you intend to put on his property. I wouldn’t blame him.” That finally got their attention. I’m sure it was only the serious threat of litigation, not my threat of quitting, that they ultimately cared about. My professional ass was on the line. It took me years to get to the point of trust with that specific landowner, and I am not going to violate that trust over something petty. We routed the pipeline around the pasture. He’s never going to know that I was literally the only person on his side, because he would never understand Houston’s persistence that we can “fuck him” if we have to.

Some of these landowners think they can treat me like shit, continue to break their word, call the sheriff on our field guys, and otherwise just be complete assholes with impunity. I take it all in stride, forcing a smile while I eat shit. Because I know that I will have the opportunity at some point in the future to fuck these assholes back so much harder than they ever imagined. I can wait…

A couple of landowners that I deal with are assholes for the sake of being an asshole. They want to nickel and dime us for every little thing, are constantly threatening litigation, create drama with our field guys, or generally just treat me like a piece of dirt with some shit stuck to it. These people are constantly pushing the limits of my patience and professional courtesy. Cursing is often their first instinct, but after a couple of instances where I say “please do not speak to me like that, Sir” and ultimately hang up on them, they start to understand that tactic isn’t going to work. Personal threats or insults are another interesting way to deal with these situations, I’ve had a couple of people say they’re going to kick my ass, like I’m the one responsible for their frustration. Well…fuck, I guess I am. That’s what I get paid for. To take the heat. Whenever I have a new lease/prospect/landowner, I try to explain up front that there are a lot of things I can help work out for their benefit, but there are limits to what I have control over. You need a couple of loads of material on this other ranch road? No problem, I’ll have someone go blade it for you too. Want a livestock fence or a new gate/cattle guard at one of the entrances to your place? I can make that happen, but I need you to go ahead and sign off on these surface locations and pipeline easements. These give and take situations often develop into the trust of knowing I am going to do what I can, within my limits, to preserve their property for whatever their ultimate purpose is.

Be a good ass

It can be a thankless job, but as with most things in life, it is what you make of it. Small victories that will never be celebrated are a common occurrence. Sometimes the battles drag on for weeks or months, but ultimately I am being paid to find a compromise. Getting stuck in the middle can feel isolating, so I try to remind people that we are all trying to get the same thing done and just need to find a common ground we can all agree on. No reason to have animosity towards me or “the other side” because that is not constructive to the ultimate goal. The egos that I deal with on either side can be the biggest impediment to these negotiations. In those situations, I find myself short of breath when I get off a phone call, and I need to remind myself to take a couple of deep breaths and let go of my frustration. Find a solution. Sometimes that means I have to take responsibility for something that in no way was I part of. When people are pissed off they don’t care who is responsible they just want someone to vent their anger at. Blaming “the production guys” or “the drilling crew” only kicks the can down the road, so let me take that lashing and let’s move the fuck on. I struggle with the desire to snap back at times, but usually I bite my tongue. It will not help the situation. At the end of the day, I want to be able to relax and know I did the best that I could do with the information I had at the time.

End of the day, and I’m still dangling that carrot hoping the ass doesn’t bite me
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