New Values Under Old Oil and Gas Leases: Helium, Who Owns It?

It is a well known maxim among oil and gas lawyers that “a producing well always clouds a title and a dry hole cures it.” A variation of that maxim might be applied to producing wells which may or may not include, as by-products of the primary mineral, other substances that are extractible and valuable. Of course, once production of by-products begins, conveyancers give special attention to these resources, but many instruments executed before such development may be phrased in general terms without specific mention of substances unimportant when the conveyance was made. Even a recent instrument may lack specificity in this regard. Inevitably, as science develops new uses and commercially feasible means of extraction, questions arise concerning ownership of by-products. The feasibility of extracting helium from natural gas, coupled with the critical national need for helium, have occasioned one such dispute. A confused and conflicting history of decisions involving title to other elements and compounds provides the setting for resolving this contemporary issue of ownership.