Oklahoma Bar Journal

Reexamining Nesbitt: How Horizontal Wells Have Changed Pooling in Oklahoma Oil and Gas Law

By Ronald Merrill Barnes, Grayson Merrill Barnes and Denver Morrissey Nicks

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In 1979, the Oklahoma Bar Journal published an article titled “A Primer on Forced Pooling of Oil and Gas Interests in Oklahoma,” which detailed the intricacies and applications of the state’s forced pooling statute. Authored by Oklahoma attorney Charles Nesbitt, the article may have had an unassuming title, but its effect was anything but modest. In the years since it first appeared, Mr. Nesbitt’s primer on forced pooling has become extremely influential. Decisions of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (Corporation Commission) on pooling matters frequently cite the piece and generally mirror Mr. Nesbitt’s positions. Reports of administrative law judges and referees routinely cite Mr. Nesbitt’s article as the authority for decisions on fair market value determinations, selections of operators and other matters related to forced pooling. Thus, when appellate courts cite the Corporation Commission in their decisions, they are very often adopting Mr. Nesbitt’s positions into case law. Perhaps that level of impact was to be expected from an article authored by a Yale-educated lawyer who served as the state’s attorney general before spending seven years as a member of the Corporation Commission, nearly all of them as its chair.

Mr. Nesbitt defined forced pooling thusly: “The law provides that where there are separately owned tracts, or undivided interests, or both, within an established spacing unit, and the owners have not voluntarily agreed upon joint development, and one owner proposes to drill a well on the unit, the Corporation Commission may ‘require such owners to pool and develop their lands in the spacing unit as a unit.’”

While that description remains as serviceable today as ever, and Mr. Nesbitt’s 1979 article has remained influential, the energy industry has changed considerably in the 40-plus years since the article first appeared in print. Many of those changes have direct ramifications on some of Mr. Nesbitt’s assumptions and conclusions, particularly with respect to well spacing, correlative rights, operator selection and, most importantly, the doctrine of waste. Some of these changes relate to the development of case law, in which questions of law that had not been definitively answered in 1979 are settled today, while others reflect changes to the standard terms now common in pooling orders and operating agreements reached privately between the parties. Technological changes since Mr. Nesbitt wrote his seminal article – most notably the advent of horizontal drilling – have upended some of his basic presuppositions, which warrants reconsideration of his core conclusions. This article will revisit the landscape of forced pooling in Oklahoma, see where Mr. Nesbitt’s piece remains relevant and explain where it’s in need of an update.

But first, let us consider a question, the answer to which will form the foundation for the rest of this article:



The mayhem in the early years of oil and gas production in Oklahoma was aptly captured by one historian describing the scene after an oil field was discovered under Oklahoma City in 1928: “wild wells, floods of crude, and almost uncontrollable flows of natural gas.”[1]

It is this state of affairs that the Corporation Commission was tasked with bringing under control – massive overproduction, barrels of wasted oil, mere black sludge on the ground, some untold amount left unrecoverable beneath the surface and natural gas escaping freely into the air.

The power of the Corporation Commission to regulate the exploitation of subsurface oil and gas deposits is premised upon the United States Supreme Court’s 1877 decision in Munn v. People of State of Illinois, in which the court recognized the sovereign authority of state governments to regulate private industry within their borders when that industry is of a kind that affects the public interest.[2] Munn & Scott had been found liable for violating a properly enacted statute that set maximum rates for the storage and transportation of grain.[3] In upholding Munn & Scott’s conviction, the court held that the state of Illinois had properly exercised its inherent police power to regulate the use of private property when such use will be “of public consequence, and affect the community at large.”[4] Chief Justice Morrison Waite – a former corporate and railroad lawyer[5] – wrote for the court, stating, “When one devotes his property to a use in which the public has an interest, he, in effect, grants to the public an interest in that use, and must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good, to the extent of the interest he has thus created.”[6]

Importantly, Justice Waite found support for the court’s position in the very foundations that underlie all human society and governance. The social contract, he wrote, implicitly authorizes “the establishment of laws requiring each citizen to so conduct himself, and so use his own property, as not unnecessarily to injure another. This is the very essence of government and has found expression in the maxim sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas,” the Latin maxim meaning that one ought not use that which is his in such a way as to harm that which is someone else’s.[7] “From this source,” writes Justice Waite, “come the police powers.”[8]

For the founding generation of the early republic who laid the foundations of our legal traditions and political culture – most of it imported wholesale from Britain – the terms police and economy were effectively interchangeable.[9] As is ever the case, we can look to the same place the founders looked – the authoritative English jurist Sir William Blackstone – to better understand the concept of the police power and how it is meant to fit into the greater American polity, to wit: “By the public police and oeconomy I mean the due regulation and domestic order of the kingdom: whereby the individuals of the state, like members of a well-governed family, are bound to conform their general behaviour to the rules of propriety, good neighbourhood, and good manners; and to be decent, industrious, and inoffensive in their respective stations.”[10]

Mr. Blackstone’s deployment of the metaphor of a well-governed family is no accident. As Mr. Blackstone well knew,[11] the very idea of economy comes to us from the ancient Greeks, for whom economy meant “government of the household for the common good of the whole family.”[12] Hence Mr. Blackstone’s odd-to-modern-eyes spelling of the word with an “o” up front: oeconomy, from the Greek oikos, meaning house, and nomos, meaning law.

Thus, the government’s power over police and economy is essentially and inextricably paternalistic, albeit in a rather more positive sense of the word than that to which the modern ear is accustomed; the police power is a power that, according to the very most fundamental ideas that underpin Western civilization, ought ever to be directed toward the betterment of the common good, in the same way a father looks after the well-being of his entire family.[13]

The Corporation Commission was created by Article 9 of the Oklahoma Constitution to exercise the state’s police power – the power to regulate private industry for the public good.

The Oklahoma Legislature gave teeth to this purpose in the domain of oil and gas when, in 1915, it passed the Oil and Gas Conservation Act, specifically conferring upon the Corporation Commission the power to regulate oil and gas drilling in the state for “the protection of the rights of all parties entitled to share in the benefits of oil and gas production.”[14]

To the 21st-century reader, the Oil and Gas Conservation Act of 1915 has a rather misleading name in that its purpose is not to conserve resources in the sense of preventing their exploitation but to conserve them in the sense of ensuring their full – i.e., not wasteful – exploitation. The act directs the Corporation Commission to regulate the industry so as to ensure that oil and gas stays in the ground until it “can be produced and utilized without waste.”[15] The act is careful to establish that, in addition to its ordinary meaning, the word waste in the statute refers also to “economic waste, underground waste, surface waste, and waste incident to the production of crude oil or petroleum in excess of transportation or marketing facilities or reasonable market demands.”[16] Waste, as defined by the statute, is not only oil that may spill onto the ground or gas that escapes into the air, it is also underground waste, oil and gas that could technically be extracted but instead is left in the ground by a producer, as well as economic waste, hydrocarbons extracted at too high a cost or sold at too low a price to be financially advantageous to mineral owners, operators and the tax-funded state coffers.

In 1947, as part of the ongoing effort to minimize waste and encourage the full development of the state’s mineral resources, the Oklahoma Legislature passed the forced pooling law.[17] The law provides that where there are separately owned tracts or undivided interests within a spacing unit and the mineral and/or leasehold owners have not agreed on joint development and one owner proposes to drill, the Corporation Commission can require owners to pool and develop their interests all together, as a unit.[18]

In 1943, in the case of Hunter Co. v. McHugh, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutional power of a state “to regulate production of oil and gas so as to prevent waste and to secure equitable apportionment among the landholders.”[19] Here, we have an instance of an extremely important three-letter conjunction: and. The purpose of the power is to prevent waste and secure benefits to landholders – two separate purposes. If the latter is a benefit to landholders, then to whom is the former a benefit?

The Oklahoma Supreme Court provided a direct answer to that question in 1957 when it held, “To curtail over-production and waste for the benefit and protection of the general public, restraints had to be placed around the individual's rights to develop and produce [oil and gas].”[20] The curtailment of waste in the production of hydrocarbons, the Supreme Court said, is a benefit conferred on the general public of the state.[21]

This position is consistent with the purpose of the Corporation Commission: to exercise the state’s police power, which is to say, the state’s power to regulate the use of private property in the interest of the common good. While mineral owners and oil and gas companies have an obvious pecuniary interest in the development of hydrocarbons, the doctrine of waste points to the interest that all citizens of Oklahoma have in the full development of the mineral resources of the state.

Even decisions that circumscribe the rights and interests of the state acknowledge the state’s underlying interest in preventing waste for the common good, including in instances where it has no other claim to a right or interest, to wit: “The state has no title to oil and gas in place, and is without power to appropriate the oil and gas in and under the lands of one owner to the use and benefit of another owner. The only interest the state has under its police power is to prevent actual waste and to provide equal privileges to every landowner to reduce such products to possession and place them in the channels of legitimate commerce.”[22] The United States Supreme Court has similarly endorsed the idea that, where they are in conflict, certain public interests (such as the prevention of waste in oil and gas production) take precedence over private property interests.[23]

The plain fact that the doctrine of waste exists to protect the interests not merely of mineral owners but of all Oklahomans was once self-evident. The Oklahoma Supreme Court said as much in terms that could hardly be clearer when it held in 1933: “Gas energy should be preserved and properly utilized in order to extract all of the oil from oil-bearing sands. This theory recognizes the interest of the state in the proper utilization of all its resources. After all, such theory is particularly proper in Oklahoma, because oil and gas constitute to a large degree the basic wealth of the state. This basic wealth and basis of taxation and income should not be wasted. The waste of any natural resource that cannot be replaced should be and is against public policy.”[24]

Resting, as it does, on the police power, the mandate of the Corporation Commission is thus to regulate those businesses in which the general public has an interest in such a way as to benefit the general public. With respect to the Corporation Commission’s jurisdiction over the oil and gas industry, that amounts to the prevention of waste and protection of correlative rights.[25]


In some respects, little has changed since 1979 concerning the pooling of hydrocarbons for development. Mr. Nesbitt wrote that in “simplest terms, the pooling order offers the non-consenting owner of oil and gas rights a choice either 1) to pay his proportionate share of the cost of the well and receive the same share of the working interest; or 2) to receive a bonus in lieu of the right to participate in the working interest of the well.” That remains broadly true, though these days, an irrevocable letter of credit satisfactory to the operator securing the payment is often included among the options, as is a no-cash, higher royalty alternative. Pooled mineral owners are entitled to know how much it will cost to participate in the well if they elect to do so and what bonus (or other consideration) they will receive if they do not. Though so-called “back-in” interest arrangements were once an option commonly offered to owners, they are virtually nonexistent these days.[26]

Pooling orders specify the deadlines for certain events, like the number of days in which an owner must elect to participate or not, and many of these time frames have changed since Mr. Nesbitt’s article was published over 40 years ago. A pooled mineral owner now has 20 days (formerly 15) in which to elect to participate in the well or receive an option in lieu of participation, a participating owner now has 25 days (previously 20 days) to pay their portion of the well cost, and an operator now has 35 days (formerly 30 days) to pay the bonus to a non-participating owner. In the 1970s, the Corporation Commission very seldom allowed an operator to begin drilling a well more than 120 days from the issuance of a pooling order, but because of the technical complexity involved, fractional ownership and the unpredictable availability of rigs and rig hands, operators today are frequently allowed up to a full year to commence the initial horizontal well. Even that deadline can be extended for good cause, though if an extension is granted, the operator is typically required to increase the size of the bonus by an amount proportionate to the number of days the order is extended as compared to the total days to commence operations under the original order. Also, no new election is authorized under the extension.

Well into the 1980s, it was uncertain whether each pooling order covered only a single wellbore or an entire spacing unit, regardless of how many wells were drilled within the unit into the pooled common sources of supply. In order to clarify its position on this issue, the Corporation Commission enacted a policy declaring each pooling to be for a single wellbore, not the unit. The Court of Civil Appeal’s decision in Amoco Production Company v. Corporation Commission put an end to that practice, holding that a pooling must be done by the unit, not the wellbore, which remains the law today.[27] Because the courts have concluded that poolings are by the unit, not the wellbore, pooling orders subsequent to the Amoco decision include language concerning elections in subsequent wells.

During the turbulent early years of Oklahoma’s oil boom, oilmen drilled wells nearly on top of one another in a mad race to suck as much black gold from the ground as possible faster than the competition. Thus, in Mr. Nesbitt’s day, as it is today, one of the chief ways regulators went about preventing waste was by limiting the number of wells allowed in any given area. Spacing units for oil formations less than 4,000 feet deep were capped at 40 acres and 80 acres for formations between 4,000 and 9,990 feet deep.

Properly spacing wells is still an important consideration, but horizontal drilling has radically changed the calculus by adding to the types of reservoirs that can be developed and increasing the amount of reserves that can be recovered by a single well. Consequently, spacing units in today’s energy environment have dramatically increased in size – up to 1,280 acres for horizontal wells comprised of multiple sections.

Horizontal drilling has introduced novel challenges too numerous to address in full in this article, but one challenge of particular concern is what is known as the “parent-child effect,” which can have a detrimental impact on all wells throughout an entire spacing unit. This pernicious phenomenon can occur when an operator does not drill, frack and open for production multiple horizontal wells in a spacing unit all at once (“batch drilling” is the industry term for the practice of drilling multiple wells together, and “simultaneous completion” is the industry term for completing, fracking and producing the wells at the same time) and instead waits to assess the productive capacity of the first well before drilling additional wells. When drilling horizontally in this way, the first well can alter subsurface conditions – for example, by depressurizing the area around the “parent” well – such that the efficacy of fracks on subsequent “child” wells is reduced. The “child” wells, in turn, sap the vitality of the preexisting “parent” well. The productive capacity of all wells in a spacing unit is thus likely to be diminished when wells in the unit are not drilled and fracked together so as to maintain underground pressure until the wells are turned on in unison. The net result is a waste of hydrocarbons left in the ground that would have been recovered had the wells been batched drilled and simultaneously completed.[28]

Due to the potential harm of the parent-child effect, merely ensuring that wells are spaced a certain distance from one another can be an insufficient means of fulfilling the Corporation Commission’s all-important directive to minimize waste. Instead, a comprehensive development plan may be required, wherein all the wells planned for a spacing unit are batch drilled and simultaneously completed, which can affect how well cost is tabulated and allocated.

Mr. Nesbitt wrote that a pooling order “specifies the individual formations pooled and the well cost ordinarily is calculated to the deepest formation to be tested.”[29] Though that remains broadly true, when a unit is batch drilled, calculations of well cost in the pooling order must take into account all of the planned wells at the outset. On the other hand, batch drilling generally results in significant cost savings on the whole, an additional consideration today’s pooling orders must consider.

Horizontal drilling and the creation of multiunit horizontal wells have also changed the way royalties are allocated. When a multiunit horizontal well crosses a section line, the amount of royalty allocated to royalty owners in a section corresponds to the proportion of the completion interval – the segment of a horizontal pipe that is perforated to allow for the flow of hydrocarbons – in the lateral in that section. So, for example, if a hypothetical horizontal well cuts across two units and three-fourths of the completed lateral portion of the well is in one unit and one-fourth is in the adjacent unit, royalties and costs alike would be allocated in equivalent proportions (75% and 25%, respectively).

Another novel issue that did not exist before the introduction of horizontal drilling is the practice of drilling the downhole portion of the well by starting outside the unit. This presents the question of whether or not it is necessary to lease some part of the minerals drilled offsite and the question of whether information learned from the offsite hole is the property of the mineral owner(s) to whom none of the well’s actual production will be attributed. This matter remains unresolved but is likely to be taken up by courts in the coming years.

Fair market value (FMV) as a legal term has the same meaning it did when Mr. Nesbitt defined it as “the bonus which would be paid for a lease between willing contracting parties, neither under compulsion.”[30] However, the advent of multisection units has necessitated changes in how FMV is calculated. For instance, the sheer size of today’s spacing units encompasses more units in the calculation. Traditionally, FMV takes into consideration the amounts paid to mineral owners in a unit and the surrounding units in the past year. Larger spacing units have a larger perimeter, which means there are more surrounding units to bring into the calculus. Multiunit transactions are excluded from the determination of FMV, as are transactions made by third parties for lands in the unit to be pooled after the filing of the pooling. Any transactions that do not qualify as “arm’s-length transactions” under the law likewise are not considered when determining FMV.

The mechanics of horizontal drilling have also led to a change in what exactly is pooled in a pooling order. In a vertical well – which is to say all wells in Mr. Nesbitt’s day – all the subsurface spaced and named zones in the pooling above the deepest point of the well (uphole zones) are included in the pooling, and the operator is thus able to complete whatever uphole portions of the well they choose to. But horizontal wells work differently. They are rarely, if ever, constructed in a manner such that it is technically feasible to complete for production the uphole zones from the target zone of the lateral component of the well. Thus, in a pooling for a horizontal well, operators are only permitted to pool, at most, the target zone and the zones directly above and below it. Unlike the operators in Mr. Nesbitt’s day, today’s operators do not get to hold all the uphole zones in a well. Because a pooling order for a horizontal well does not automatically include every zone spaced between the surface and the target zone, when a unit has prior production, parties being pooled have the option of electing in or out of pooled zones. For example, if zones one and two are pooled, parties have the option of electing to participate in zone two (the deeper zone) while electing out of zone one, or they can elect out of both zones. A party is only entitled to receive the portion of the FMV allocated to zones they elect out of. So, in the above scenario, if zone one is allocated 40% of the bonus and zone two is allocated 60% of the bonus, the party electing out of zone one and participating in zone two would receive 40% of the FMV bonus.

Because of the size of today’s spacing units and the fact that pooling is done by the unit rather than the wellbore, more often than not, operators know before they ever start drilling in a unit that it will require multiple wells to fully develop the unit. Operators may reduce the bonus associated with subsequent wells, as each well reduces the remaining reserves available to wells that follow. Only a party that participated in the initial well has the right to elect differently in a proposed subsequent well. Additionally, only an owner who continues to elect and properly participate in a subsequent well maintains the right under a pooling order to elect differently in future wells. Once a party elects out of a subsequent well, that party is out of that well and any subsequent wells that may follow, but they remain in any well they properly elected to participate in, assuming they also properly paid their share of costs.


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One aspect of Mr. Nesbitt’s article that is ripe for wholesale reappraisal, in light of the monumental changes in the way the industry drills for hydrocarbons, is the designation of the operator of a spacing unit subject to a pooling order. In Mr. Nesbitt’s time, as he put it, “[a]ll other things being equal, the owner of the largest share of the working interest has the best claim to operations.”[31] Other factors to consider, Mr. Nesbitt added, include the extent of an operator’s activity in the area, the availability of personnel and facilities, cost comparisons “and, rarely, the relative experience and competence of the contenders for operating rights.”[32]

Due to the innovation of horizontal drilling – with its added complexity and the potential of triggering the parent-child effect – this is no longer necessarily true. While the relative size of a proposed operator’s ownership stake in the working interest is still an important consideration, all other things are rarely equal.

Because of the complexity involved in horizontal drilling and, in many cases, efforts to curtail the parent-child effect, the relative competence of an operator is a more important consideration today than it was in the days when wells were only drilled vertically. Furthermore, taking waste into account, it works differently today than it once did.

In Mr. Nesbitt’s list of factors to consider when designating an operator, the primacy of waste as a consideration was merely implied. In 1979, it could be presumed that the operator with the greatest working interest ownership (i.e., the greatest investment in the outcome), the most wells in the vicinity, the highest availability of personnel, etc. would operate the well most effectively and efficiently – which is to say, with the least amount of waste. Today, however, because of horizontal drilling, the parent-child effect and other potential problems, an operator often must devise a plan that accounts for waste from the very beginning and make highly consequential decisions that weigh the cost of extracting reachable hydrocarbons against the value of doing so in light of the operator’s unique financial situation. One operator may assess that the return on investment of extracting a certain amount of recoverable oil and gas, though still profitable, would not be profitable enough and choose to leave it in the ground, whereas for another operator, extracting that extra amount might be a worthwhile investment. Here, waste becomes a consideration unto itself in a way it was not before. Mr. Nesbitt’s other factors should still be taken into account when designating an operator, but because the Corporation Commission’s reason for being – as it relates to hydrocarbons – is to minimize waste for the benefit of all Oklahomans, the proposal that will result in the least amount of waste naturally ought to receive preferential consideration.

The role of private agreements in selecting the operator following a pooling is another subject ripe for appellate review. At the outset of a pooling, it is the Corporation Commission’s responsibility to select an operator based on the various considerations detailed above. But it has long been industry practice that a pooling order is a bare-bones document, lacking many terms that may be included in a more detailed private agreement executed after the pooling order is in place, such as, for instance, terms that govern succession of operator. As Mr. Nesbitt wrote, “Such an operating agreement will effectively supersede the pooling order, especially as to its many detailed provisions which are not detailed in a pooling order.”[33] As stated previously, private agreements are contracts that implicate the private rights and obligations of parties to the agreement, and the power to adjudicate matters related to private agreements properly belongs to the district courts, as expressed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in Tenneco Oil Co. v. El Paso Nat. Gas Co. Though this remains true, in recent years, reports of the Corporation Commission have at times asserted that the power to select an operator belongs solely to the Corporation Commission in every instance, regardless of the existence of a private agreement that dictates the succession of operator between the parties to the agreement. This position would seem to contravene Mr. Nesbitt’s assertion – as true today as it was when he made it in 1979 – that private operating agreements supersede the pooling order with respect to terms not addressed in the order, as well as exceed the Corporation Commission’s jurisdictional mandate to decide matters involving public, not private, rights.


Identifying the precise boundaries of the Corporation Commission’s jurisdiction is a persistent and recurring point of controversy, and for good reason. Determining whether the power to decide an issue properly belongs to the district courts, tribunals of general jurisdiction that exist to resolve controversy, or the Corporation Commission, an administrative body with quasi-judicial authority of limited jurisdiction that exists to exercise the state’s police power, can have a significant influence on the outcome of a dispute.[34]

Mr. Nesbitt notes that certain legal questions around orders and costs – namely regarding the enforceability of the Corporation Commission’s judgments and whether or not they are binding on district courts in litigation arising out of a dispute over costs – remained, at the time, unsettled. Oklahoma’s appellate courts have since issued decisions to offer some clarity around these and other issues.

In Gulfstream Petroleum Corp. v. Layden, the Oklahoma Supreme Court stated with refreshing finality that the Corporation Commission’s decisions regarding costs are indeed binding on district courts, holding that, except with respect to inquiries into the Corporation Commission’s jurisdiction, “[g]enerally, the district courts of this state lack the jurisdiction to even inquire into the validity of [Corporation Commission] orders.”[35]

This is not to say that the district courts are powerless in matters related to the Corporation Commission. In Tenneco and other cases in its lineage, the Oklahoma Supreme Court delineated the boundaries of the jurisdictional tug-of-war between these two fonts of judicial authority. In keeping with the Corporation Commission’s essential purpose as it relates to oil and gas – that being, in simplest terms, the protection of correlative rights and prevention of waste – the Corporation Commission holds sway when public rights are at issue, such as in questions regarding spacing orders, pooling orders and other “enactments for the conservation of oil and gas.”[36] Furthermore, “the power to clarify or interpret any Commission order” in its aspects that implicate public rights rests squarely with the Commission.[37] Meanwhile, private rights, including – in at least some respects – interpreting Corporation Commission orders, are the province of the district courts, to wit: “Respective rights and obligations of parties are to be determined by the district court.”[38]

In Toklan Oil & Gas Corp. v. Citizen Energy III, LLC, one party accused the other of transferring ownership of a sizable overriding royalty interest to a third party with the purported intention of so burdening the leasehold as to make developing it financially nonviable for the other party. Without addressing the ultimate issue of whether or not the party was hindering development (i.e., causing waste) by transferring ownership of an override for a dubious purpose, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals held that “the Commission does not have jurisdiction to alter the ownership of royalty or to shift royalty away from the party taking the working interest pursuant to a pooling order.”[39] Were the Corporation Commission to do so, it would be adjudicating matters of contract, which is to say matters of private rights, which would exceed the bounds of its limited jurisdiction.


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One significant and conspicuous change in the law since Mr. Nesbitt’s article was published has to do with notice requirements. Mr. Nesbitt wrote in 1979 that “[n]either law nor policy requires prior contact to other lease owners” before initiating a pooling proceeding.[40] Today, 52 O.S. §87.1(e) requires that an applicant first make a bona fide effort to reach an agreement with lease owners and explicitly requires that notice be attempted by mail with return receipt requested as well as published in a newspaper of general circulation in Oklahoma County and in some newspaper, at least 15 days prior to the date of the hearing, in the county (or in each county if there is more than one) in which the lands embraced within the spacing unit are situated. Furthermore, efforts to give notice to landowners must be more than merely perfunctory. In Harry R. Carlile Tr. v. Cotton Petroleum Corp., a case involving notice requirements in a spacing proceeding before the Corporation Commission, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held that notice by publication in a periodical was inadequate in that instance.[41] Today, it may be inadequate for any purpose, at least in the absence of more robust attempts to contact a landowner. In 2020, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held in Purcell v. Parker that when “affected landowners are known, or reasonably discoverable, notice provided by publication results in an unconstitutional exercise of jurisdiction and a denial of due process.”[42]

What precisely happens once notice has been given – or is supposed to happen, particularly with respect to the offer of a private agreement versus forced pooling – has become a tricky question of late, and an apparent conflict between law and custom suggests that the matter may require judicial attention in the coming years. However, the law appears on its face to require that operators make a good faith attempt to reach a private accord with mineral owners before subjecting them to forced pooling. Since the early 2000s, operators have tended to make less than vigorous efforts to reach such agreements before resorting to pooling, and the joint operating agreement (JOA) of old is rarely seen today. Instead, operators often send owners a bare-bones well proposal with terms identical to those in the forced pooling, in effect offering mineral owners the option of being pooled by election or pooled by force, a distinction without a difference if ever there was one. Appellate courts have yet to weigh in on the validity of the practice.


The procedure followed during proceedings at the Commission is, in broad strokes, largely the same as it was in Mr. Nesbitt’s day, but there have been significant changes as well.

As in Mr. Nesbitt’s day, the majority of conservation applications are still uncontested, and procedure, as it regards uncontested applications, is little changed – uncontested cases are heard the day the notice sets them for hearing. Contested cases, on the other hand, are another matter.

Today, contested cases are heard Wednesday through Friday on a docket dedicated solely to protests – an innovation that allows more time for the responding party to prepare for a protested proceeding. Prior to the hearing, a pre-hearing conference agreement is filed setting out the issues, stipulations, timeline for exhibit exchanges and witness lists. In many cases, once an application has been heard as a protest, the prevailing party prepares the initial draft of the report and submits it to the administrative law judge (ALJ, a position called the trial examiner in Mr. Nesbitt’s day), who reviews the report, makes changes as they may deem appropriate and then files it. A nonprevailing party can still take exception to the report, in which instance the commissioners usually remand the case to an appellate referee. If the nonprevailing party is unsuccessful at that stage, they can again request that the Corporation Commission take up their appeal for an en banc hearing, though the commissioners rarely grant such requests. Unlike the ALJs and referees, when the commissioners do take up an appeal, they can make a decision without hearing new arguments from either side.


The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has an enormous job with great responsibility. Those who come to the Corporation Commission to do their business have invested millions of dollars in oil and gas exploration, and the success or failure of their investment depends, in part, on decisions made by the Corporation Commission on a daily basis. The Corporation Commission helps generate millions of dollars of revenue for owners of oil and gas rights and millions more in taxes that fund Oklahoma’s state coffers. The Oklahoma Policy Institute reported in August of this year that, from May 2022 to May 2023 alone, taxes collected from oil and gas production totaled $1.91 billion, providing a vital source of funding for schools and state and local government alike. One percent of all gross production taxes is returned to the counties and schools where the wells are located, and the remaining revenue goes to the state.[43] The Corporation Commission is tasked with making decisions that encourage oil and gas development, all the while endeavoring to prevent waste and ensure that this precious nonrenewable resource is used for the benefit of all Oklahomans today and in the future.

The other most basic charge to the Corporation Commission is to ensure that all owners get their fair share of proceeds from the production of hydrocarbons produced from minerals owned by leasehold owners as well as mineral owners. The Corporation Commission works tirelessly to protect the correlative rights of all owners whose minerals are affected by drilling operations.

Thanks to the companies and individuals who spend hundreds of millions of dollars drilling horizontal wells within our state and groundbreaking advancements in drilling technology in recent years, we have seen a wonderful resurgence of productivity in Oklahoma’s hydrocarbon deposits. Thanks to the Corporation Commission – including commissioners, technical experts, lawyers, administrative courts and staff – that resurgence of productivity is responsibly managed to prevent waste of hydrocarbons and ensure they are efficiently exploited. Our state continues to be a national leader in both endeavors. With the incredible innovations made over the past 50 years and new innovations sure to be just over the horizon, Oklahoma will remain a leader in bringing dependable energy to the citizens of our state and beyond. We have come a long way since the Oklahoma conservation statutes were first codified, and we expect there remains a long and bright future for Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry for many years to come.

It is hard to believe how far the oil and gas industry, in partnership with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, has come since Mr. Nesbitt’s article was published in 1979. In his recent book, Game Changer, founder of Continental Resources and pioneering innovator in horizontal drilling Harold Hamm aptly summed up the significance of the horizontal drilling revolution and its effect on all our lives: “The horizontal drilling phenomenon has been referred to as a miracle, and it will go down in history as one of the top 10 technological achievements of the 20th century. Horizontal Drilling transformed everything connected to energy.”


Ronald Merrill Barnes is a member of Barnes Law PLLC in Tulsa, focusing on the area of oil and gas. He has 40 years of extensive legal experience counseling and representing small and large production companies in all aspects of oil and gas issues, with special emphasis on matters before the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.





Grayson Merrill Barnes is a member of Barnes Law PLLC in Tulsa, and his practice focuses on all aspects of oil and gas law with regard to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. He has served as a panelist for multiple Oklahoma Corporation Commission Oil and Gas Institutes and many other industry seminars. Mr. Barnes graduated from the OBA’s sixth Leadership Academy in 2018.





Denver Morrissey Nicks is an attorney based in Tulsa. A former journalist, he is the author of three books, most recently Conviction, a book about an early case tried in Oklahoma by Thurgood Marshall. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a law degree from the Tulane University School of Law.




[1] Mark Singer, Funny Money, 9 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing (2004).

[2] Munn v. People of State of Illinois, 94 U.S. 113, 123 (1876).

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 126.

[5] Peter Irons, A People's History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women Whose Cases and Decisions Have Shaped Our Constitution: Revised Edition (2006).

[6] Munn at 126 (emphasis added).

[7] Id. at 124–25.

[8] Id.

[9] Markus Dirk Dubber, “‘The Power to Govern Men and Things’: Patriarchal Origins of the Police Power in American Law,” 52 Buff. L. Rev. 1277, 1345 (2004).

[10] 4 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 162 (University of Chicago Press, 1979) (emphasis added).

[11] “... forms a part of oeconomics, or domestic polity; which, considering the kingdom as a large family, and the king as the master of it, he clearly has a right to dispose and order as he pleases.” 1 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 264 (University of Chicago Press 1979).

[12] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Political Economy, in On the Social Contract with Geneva Manuscript and Political Economy 209, 209 (Roger D. Masters ed. and Judith R. Masters trans., 1978) (1755).

[13] 4 Blackstone, supra note 16, at 127.

[14] Oklahoma Corporation Commission, “Oklahoma Corporation Commission History,” https://oklahoma.gov/occ/about/history.html. Last accessed April 26, 2022.

[15] Okla. Stat. tit. 52, §238 (1915).

[16] Okla. Stat. tit. 52, §273 (1915).

[17] Charles Nesbitt, “Primer on Forced Pooling of Oil and Gas Interests in Oklahoma,” OBJ 50, no. 13 (1979): 648-656.

[18] Id.

[19] Hunter Co. v. McHugh, 320 U.S. 222 (1943) (emphasis added).

[20] Anderson v. Corp. Comm'n, 327 P.2d 699, 701 (1957) (emphasis added).

[21] Id.

[22]Champlin Ref. Co. v. Corp. Comm'n of State of Oklahoma, 51 F.2d 823, 833 (W.D. Okla. 1931), modified sub nom. Champlin Ref. Co. v. Corp. Comm'n of State of Okl., 286 U.S. 210, 52 S. Ct. 559, 76 L. Ed. 1062 (1932) (emphasis added).

[23] See Miller v. Schoene, 276 U.S. 272, 279–80 (1928) (“And where the public interest is involved preferment of that interest over the property interest of the individual, to the extent even of its destruction, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of every exercise of the police power which affects property.”).

[24] Sterling Ref. Co. v. Walker, 1933 OK 446, 165 Okla. 45, 25 P.2d 312, 316 (emphasis added).

[25] Champlin at 833.

[26] Though once common, “back-in” interest is almost never offered as an option today. “Back-in” interest refers to an arrangement whereby an owner retains an overriding royalty interest until the cost of the well is paid off, at which time the owner has the option to convert the override into a larger working interest. See Practical Aspects of Examining Title, Preparing Worksheets, Chains of Title, and Document Interpretation, 2019 No. 4 RMMLF-INST 3, 3-19.

[27] Amoco Production v. Corporation Com'n, 751 P.2d 203, 1986, modified by Supreme Court order on certiorari Dec. 16, 1987, and adopted as the opinion of the Supreme Court. Rehearing denied Feb. 9, 1988.

[28] An in-depth, technical explanation of the parent-child effect can be viewed in a video produced by ResFrac, titled “Results from a Collaborative Parent/Child Industry Study: Permian Basin,” which you can find at https://bit.ly/3vQOcZY.

[29] Nesbitt at 649.

[30] Nesbitt at 650.

[31] Nesbitt at 653.

[32] Id.

[33] Id. at 654.

[34] Halpin v. Corporation Comm'n, 575 P.2d 109, 111 (Okla. 1977).

[35] Gulfstream Petroleum Corp. v. Layden, 1981 OK 56, ¶¶5-6, 632 P.2d 376, 378.

[36] Tenneco Oil Co. v. El Paso Nat. Gas Co., 1984 OK 52, ¶20, 687 P.2d 1049, 1053.

[37] Deborah B. Barnes, “Interpretation of Corporation Commission Orders: The Dichotomous Court/Agency Jurisdiction,” 8 Okla. City U.L. Rev. 311 (1984).

[38] Id.

[39] Toklan Oil & Gas Corp. v. Citizen Energy III, LLC, 2022 OK CIV APP 37, ¶9, 520 P.3d 848, 852; Petition for certiorari denied Oct. 10, 2022. Mandate issued Nov. 2, 2022.

[40] Nesbitt at 654.

[41] Harry R. Carlile Trust v. Cotton Petroleum, 732 P.2d 438, 1986 OK 16 (Okla. 1987).

[42] Purcell v. Parker, 2020 OK 83, ¶24, 475 P.3d 834, 844.

[43] Oklahoma Policy Institute Gross Production Taxes. Last updated Aug. 13, 2023.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar JournalOBJ 95 No. 5 (May 2024)

Statements or opinions expressed in the Oklahoma Bar Journal are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Oklahoma Bar Association, its officers, Board of Governors, Board of Editors or staff.