As a property owner, if someone told you they were going to start drilling for oil on your land, you'd probably try to kick them off as a trespasser. But wait! Unless you also own the minerals under your land, that someone might have every right to start drilling.
In the United States, mineral rights can be sold or conveyed separately from property rights. As a result, owning a piece of land does not necessarily mean you also own the rights to the minerals beneath it. If you didn't know this, you're not alone. Many property owners do not understand mineral rights.
This article will discuss what mineral rights are, how they can be conveyed separately from the land they lie beneath, and whether you should worry about someone else owning the mineral rights under your property.
A mineral owner has the right to extract and use minerals found beneath the surface of a particular piece of land. What minerals are included depends on the terms of the specific conveyance (the document within which someone bought or sold the rights). The conveyance might include all the minerals under the land, or be limited to specified minerals.
The most commonly extracted minerals these days are natural gas, oil, and coal (although a mineral owner might also own and extract gold, silver, or other minerals). Occasionally, a mineral rights transfer also includes surface rights. If so, the mineral owner also has the right to extract minerals on the surface of the land, such as clay or gravel.
Mineral rights are automatically included as a part of the land in a property conveyance, unless and until the ownership gets separated at some point by an owner/seller. An owner can separate the mineral rights from his or her land by:
Since a seller can convey only property that he or she owns, each sale of the land after the minerals are separated automatically includes only the land. Deeds to the land made after the first separation of the minerals will not refer to the fact that the mineral rights are not included.
This means that in most cases, you cannot determine whether you own the rights to the minerals under your land just by looking at your deed. Owners are sometimes surprised to find out someone else owns the rights to the minerals under their land.
It is typically a costly process to find out whether someone other than the landowner owns the mineral rights. And perhaps you don't really need to find out. After all, removing underground minerals tends to involve great expense, so a mineral owner probably won't find it worthwhile to remove the minerals unless they are valuable and abundant.
For example, if you live in an area that has not historically seen any oil or natural gas drilling, coal mining, or other mineral extractions, it's not likely that there are many valuable minerals under your land that a mineral owner would bother to remove. It's even likely that the mineral ownership on your land has not been separated, and that if you own the land, you own the minerals.
Additionally, U.S. laws regulating mining and mineral rights typically prohibit the mineral owner from damaging, or interfering with the use of any homes or other improvements on the land when extracting minerals. As a result, mineral owners do not typically attempt mineral extraction in highly populated areas. This means that if you live in a city, or an area with many houses on small plots of land, you probably won't need to worry about whether or not you own the minerals under you.
In areas where mineral exploitation is common, whether or not you own the minerals under your land might be a real concern. For example, if your property is in an area where oil rigs are an everyday sight, where natural gas drilling is prevalent, or where coal mining operations exist, if you don't own the minerals under your land, the mineral owner might come calling.
A mineral owner's rights typically include the right to use the surface of the land to access and mine the minerals owned. This might mean the mineral owner has the right to drill an oil or natural gas well, or excavate a mine on your property. The mineral owner is also commonly allowed to build roadways or other improvements necessary to facilitate the mineral extraction.
Sometimes the terms of the conveyance of the mineral rights restrict the mineral owner's rights. For example, a mineral deed might put a time limit on how long drilling can continue, or restrict excavation to a certain depth. Additionally, to protect the land owner and the environment, state and local laws regulating mining and drilling typically contain restrictions on mineral extraction activities.
If a mineral owner contacts you about removing the minerals under your land, your first step should be to contact a lawyer in your area experienced in mineral law. The attorney can help you wade through this complex area of law and determine who really owns the minerals under your land (an arduous process of tracing deeds back to the original mineral reservation or conveyance). A number of owners might even own the rights to different minerals. Additionally, sometimes mineral royalties (the right to profit from the minerals) are conveyed separately from the mineral ownership rights.
If the person claiming mineral ownership has a valid ownership right, you might not be able to prevent him or her from removing the minerals. You can, however, talk with the attorney about how to minimize the removal operations' impact on you and your land. At a minimum, the attorney can take steps to ensure that the mineral owner complies with any and all restrictions and regulations governing the mineral extraction and clean-up process.