THE TEXAS TRIBUNE
Wastewater Case Raises the Concept of Underground Trespassing
By JIM MALEWITZ
Published: December 5, 2013
A case involving the disposal of industrial wastewater pits two interests that are dear to many Texans against each other: oil and gas resources versus private property rights.
Expanded coverage of Texas is produced by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. To join the conversation about this article, go to texastribune.org.
A decision by the state’s highest civil court could have major implications for both. The Texas Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on Jan. 7 in a dispute between a company that operates injection wells in Liberty County and a nearby rice farm that says wastewater from those wells has migrated into a saltwater aquifer below its land. It calls the migration trespassing, for which it should be compensated. Among several smaller questions, the court will weigh a broad one: Just how far below the earth’s surface do property lines extend?
“This is the classic battle between the two quintessential values that are in direct conflict with each other,” said Matthew J. Festa, a professor at the South Texas College of Law. “On a lot of different levels, this case could make some new law.”
This is not the first time oil and gas interests have clashed with landowners in Texas. State courts have weighed in on several such showdowns in recent years, including eminent domain cases involving land seized to build pipelines. But the court has yet to consider the idea of underground trespassing.
The dispute, which has reached the high court once before, has drawn the oil and gas industry’s attention.