FIVE OF THEM, unannounced at our gate on a Thursday morning, right after I’d noticed that one of our heifers was calving and needed attention. My brother, Mitch, had left for the Fort Worth livestock show the previous night with our show cattle. We were down a person, a cow was in trouble, and that day I’d intended to be at Ojo de Agua, one of our other properties. Already the day was not going as planned, and it was only eight in the morning! What were bulldozers doing at the ranch?
“We’re here to clear brush” was the answer. “We told Mitch we were coming.” (Ah, the usual family miscommunication.) After a frantic call to my brother and a conversation with the bulldozer supervisor, I clued in: They were here because of the seismic permit. You see, about six months ago our family was approached by an oil company wanting to conduct a geophysical exploration, or seismic survey, on our ranch. A survey like this helps a company determine if there’s any viable oil and gas under your land. Now, as a lawyer in South Texas, I’m familiar with this sort of thing, not only because you see a lot of seismic exploration down here but also because practically the first topic you cover in law school in this state is oil and gas. (There is even a section dealing with oil and gas on the bar exam.) One of the fundamentals you get drummed into you in school is the dominance of the mineral estate over the surface estate, which implies, in lay terms, that what lies beneath the land can be more valuable than the land itself. A landowner may have rights to both the surface and the mineral estates, or he may not; depending on the terms under which he acquired the land, he may own only the surface, or maybe the surface and a percentage of the minerals. This makes things interesting when you’re negotiating with oil companies—surface and mineral owners often want different things—but around here that’s all just par for the course.
Still, studying oil and gas in law school or working on a legal document as an attorney—even if you’re carefully including all the right terms and clauses—can be a somewhat abstract exercise. Until, that is, you find yourself with a seismic permit of your own and one day have five bulldozers at your gate. The truth is that in negotiating the permit, none of us had considered what it would actually mean on the ground. When I went to let the bulldozers in, the workers explained that they were there to clear areas for the seismic equipment. They planned to start right away. I was in a panic—you worry about your water wells, your animals, and the landscape of the ranch—but at that moment I still had the heifer to attend to. So I called my sister-in-law, Linda, and asked her to hold the bulldozers off at all costs if they got near the front of our house; then I rushed to help the cow. I soon returned, humbled by the afterbirth on my clothes, to discuss the drivers’ plans, but by that time I was due at Ojo de Agua. In desperation I called my husband, David, at work so that he could supervise. Thankfully, he left the office, transferred all his calls to his BlackBerry, and worked the rest of the day with bulldozers roaring in the background.
It was all quite a commotion. Everyone was on the move; everywhere there were unfamiliar faces. You have to understand: Seismic surveys can take up a lot more acreage than, say, a drill site for an oil or gas well. A crew arrives and maps out a grid on the ground, on which they place a series of cables and receivers (hence the need to clear long stretches of brush). Then, along the grid, they drive these 62,000-pound vibrator trucks, which have large pistons that hammer the ground to create vibrations; by measuring how the vibrations travel, the crew can determine what lies beneath your land’s surface. Even if a rancher welcomes the exploration, you can imagine how disruptive all this can be. We’re in the middle of calving season, and suddenly there are surveyors and bulldozing crews driving all over. What if a baby calf is nestled in the brush and gets in the way of a bulldozer? What if a workman leaves a pasture gate open and jeopardizes our controlled-breeding program? I should say, in all fairness, that surface owners do receive a seismic survey fee for the use of the land, so we’re definitely compensated for the trouble. And the cleared paths will make for great dune buggy trails. But when the surface is your front yard, you can’t help but worry a little.
The Saturday after the bulldozers showed up, I met