What Does a Landman Do?
Answers from a Surface Landman
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
What a Surface Landman Does:
Some people call us right of way agents, land brokers, or consultants. We are the jack of all trades, masters of none. We bridge the gap between the office and the oilfield. Being the face of an oil operator to landowners might seem like a simple task. Knowing what is going on behind the scenes has its challenges. When are you obligated to notify someone? At what point are you sharing too much information? Will this end up costing the company more money in the long run? We are the people people who have to make those decisions. Knowing how to treat each landowner takes time. Building trust is not easy.
We work with landowners, manage contractors, obtain permits, negotiate easements/surface agreements/water purchases/and all manner of other unusual contracts like the infamous hunting waiver. Once we have locations from geology, we have to coordinate the dance between our client (operator) and the landowner (farmer/hunter/rancher), which will determine how much of that crop circle pivot system we are going to destroy and how much it’s going to cost. Initial locations are almost always dead center on that pivot…but by the time we are done, the farmer may only be down a span or two. Our locations are with almost near certainty going to be right on top of someone’s “favorite spot” on the property.
The ultimate goal is to build trust with the landowners so that we can have a mutually beneficial relationship. This is usually complicated by the fact that most landowners have been burned by other landmen in the past. It’s unfortunate that a lot of landmen simply ghost the landowners they worked with, whether that is because the job ended or not. It’s easy to answer the phone and say “Mr. Johnson, I am no longer working with [insert operator’s name here], but I would be happy to refer you to someone else in the office who may be able to help you.” It is a professional courtesy that some landmen don’t seem to appreciate. Some of them should never have been landmen to begin with. That’s another story…
Mutually Beneficial Relationships
Most of our landowners will do what they can to help us if we call and say “we’re in a bind,” but that is because they know I’m going to follow through with whatever I have agreed to in the past. I spend a lot of time making sure that when I tell a landowner we will do something, Houston isn’t going to stab me in the back next week. Money drives most people so we try to be fair, but other landowners have bigger concerns than the money. Farming, ranching, or hunting operations are always high up on that list. Understanding those concerns and doing what I can to assist them BEFORE we decide on a course of action is part of the job that these landowners never see. “Can we do this?” Is a bitch of a question when it comes from Houston, because the answer most of the time is “yes, but I wouldn’t do it like that…” Trying to stand on both sides of the fence is a balancing act.
I negotiate on both sides, for my client (operator) and for the landowners. Keeping in mind that I am being paid by the operator to keep things moving smoothly with the landowners, the easiest way to do that is by listening to them. Knowing what they want, what they feel they need for their property, etc. I put together as much information as possible before initiating contact on a proposed deal, because you never know what might seem insignificant during your research but ends up being crucial information during a negotiation. The guy’s kid goes to A&M? Aggie’s just won a big game (yeah right)? Don’t blurt that out awkwardly, but if the opportunity presents itself, casually drop that in. Any angle I can get to understand someone before we start working together might be the difference between a deal and walking away empty handed.
We are not only responsible for maintaining the image of our client and their operations, but we also have to take care to maintain our client’s professional relationships with other companies in the area. Sometimes that means other operators on adjacent leases, but most of the time it is in regards to the third party contractors we use. They will have their own chains of command, but knowing that “the landman” can fix problems before they escalate is invaluable. It can take days for information to cycle through different departments before it finally ends up in my inbox. Most of the time I could have fixed the issue with a phone call.
If one of our pumpers calls his boss (a production manager) about a dead cow near a location, that will probably lead to a meeting between all the pumpers in that area and their corresponding production manager(s). Then they will all decide that it is not their problem, so that production manger will talk to his boss (head of production for the area). The head of production decides it’s not his problem, so he passes it up his chain to head of production for the region. Eventually, 5 days and 20 people later, it gets to Land. Then it filters through a couple of people before getting to me. This wastes time and money, and is only going to add to the frustration of said landowner when I call a week later to talk about the dead cow. I always make sure that the people at the bottom of their respective totem poles (like me, at the bottom of the Land totem pole) know they need to reach out to me before running things up another level.
Attorneys are a source of never ending entertainment and frustration. The fact that they justify their existence by taking weeks or months to make simple changes to an agreement is amazing. Some of the shit I have seen attorneys do to their clients is borderline criminal. Leveraging their clients interest to benefit themselves personally is an everyday occurrence with attorneys in South Texas. There are some, with whom I have worked with for many years, that I can say I have a mutual professional respect for. There have been a few times that I’ve had to call an attorney out on their bullshit, with mixed results. Try telling a 70 year old attorney “don’t speak to me like that again” and let me know how it turns out. He called back 2 weeks later and apologized. Never thought that would happen.
The first time I get to negotiate with a new attorney is always fun. A lot of the times a landowner will say something idiotic like “I know you aren’t going to like it when I tell you my attorney is Dickbag Joe out of Nobodygivesafuckville…” My nonresponse usually provokes a “…surely, you’ve heard of him? He’s known as one of the best.” [Insert the obligatory “ooohhh, okay” gif here.] Most of these attorneys have their own forms that they always insist on using. 45+ pages is pretty standard for an oil and gas lease now, but a 20+ page pipeline easement form is not unheard of. “My” form is 4 pages. I like to keep it simple, [cause] stupid. It also amazes me how some attorneys can get hung up on the simplest details.
Surveyors are the bane of my existence. They are unreliable, barely tolerable, and amazingly adept at doing the exact opposite of what they are told to do. When we are paying them to know exactly where they are on this planet, it’s incredible to me that they can get lost on the way to a location they have previously visited. Coordinating the surveyors with our construction managers is like herding cats to a bath. If we don’t make sure to consult with all of our different field supervisors when designing the layout of a pad, facility, pipeline, etc, you can be sure that the day we start construction, they will have an emergency change that fucks up everything.
We get to plan out access roads, pipeline easements, and move around pad locations. Most of that is done using Google Earth, which is a remarkably useful tool when working with surface issues. “Why didn’t you have the road come up from the South?” Well, you can see pretty clearly that to the south there’s a flood plain and I didn’t think having our road go underwater once every couple of years was a great idea. I see locations and pipelines occasionally that make you think, “who the hell thought that was a good idea?” Chances are, the landman would know. I hope that most of the time there was a good reason.
Some leases come with no surface provisions except an amount for surface damages (per acre), and others might have multiple pages of surface provisions. The 4 inch rule is popular with attorneys, it requires that we remove any rocks larger than 4 inches (across) that are dug up during construction. We are ultimately the ones who will catch shit for violating any of these provisions, but our actual authority to “enforce” any of them relies on our relationship with the construction crew bosses and the field supervisors over them. Leave a gate open? Probably gonna cost you $500+, assuming no livestock or game animals escaped. Busting guys balls over that stuff gets old fast.
With most of our construction crews, I know what to look out for…some of them have a hard time understanding that they need to pick up their trash, others like to leave giant brush piles sitting at regular intervals, and pretty much every crew is going to leave a gate open at least once per job. After the first time it happens, I usually call the crew boss and ask him to have someone man the gate at all times while they are on the property, and if he gives me any shit about it, I’ll call up the supervisor and let him know they are getting fined for leaving the gate open, and it’s probably going to be cheaper to have a guy sit at the gate all day than to keep racking up fines. Obviously these contractors are billing those fines back to my client in some way, but it at least lets the landowners feel like we did SOMETHING to crack down on the guys.
Supervising construction is not something that is technically in my purview, but it is a task I find myself taking on more often than not. Want to make sure the guys don’t fuck something up? Let them know there are eyes on them at all times. Worried they might put the pipe outside that easement? Watch their asses. Most of that time I am sitting in my truck taking care of paperwork on my computer (or making fun of Sledz for saying something dumb), but the simple act of being on site seems to be a significant deterrent to the fuck-up-idness factor. I’ve had to show up at a few stand down meetings at 5am just so the crew boss can act like the school principal has shown up to let the unruly students know how disappointed he is in their lack of accountability.