Below the Surface

Since 1996, a legal battle has raged between ExxonMobil and a powerful South Texas ranching clan that believes the oil company sabotaged wells on the family property. Even after a ruling by the state Supreme Court earlier this year, the bitter feud shows no signs of letting up. Maybe that’s because it’s about something far more important than money.

As he walked through the front door of 2J’s, the modest little cafe down the road from his family ranch outside Refugio, Thomas Michael O’Connor had a feeling that something was wrong. It was a bright winter day in January 1995, and T. Michael, as he is known to all, had come in for a lunch meeting with Glenn Lynch, the operator of a legendary oil and gas lease on the O’Connor Ranch named for T. Michael’s great-aunt, Mary Ellen O’Connor. The ranch is one of the state’s largest, covering parts of Goliad, Victoria, and Refugio counties, and T. Michael ran its operations. At forty, he was a multimillionaire, heir to a family fortune in cattle, oil, and land that stretched over five generations, but he often ate lunch at 2J’s. The dusky interior was a relief from the bleached South Texas light, and he liked that he knew just about everybody coming in and going out.

Lynch was sitting at a long table with T. Michael’s cousins Laurie Miesch and Morgan O’Connor, who, along with ten other O’Connor cousins, were royalty owners on the lease. The meeting had been called by Lynch, and as T. Michael eased up to the table, his fears were confirmed by the look of worry on his operator’s face. Lynch was tall and strong-jawed, with a shock of white hair. Like most of the men at 2J’s that day, including T. Michael, he wore cowboy boots that weren’t just for show, favored the outdoors more than the indoors, and knew to say “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” when the occasion required. Today he just looked grim. T. Michael glanced at Morgan. Her blue eyes—the same brilliant O’Connor blue as many of his relatives’—were stony, and the color had faded from her cheeks. Laurie was mad as hell. “Those SOBs screwed up our wells,” she hissed.

He didn’t have to ask who those SOBs were. Two years back, when the family had leased the wells to Lynch and his partners, he’d hoped it would mark the end of a long struggle with one of the most powerful companies in the world, ExxonMobil. For decades Exxon had operated the Mary Ellen O’Connor lease, but starting in the late eighties, it had informed the family that it intended to plug and abandon their wells. Those were rough years in the oil patch. Reserves were dwindling, old wells were playing out, and crude oil prices had dropped from about $30 a barrel to about $17. The wells needed expensive repairs, Exxon explained, and there was just no way to run the lease efficiently. The company faced the prospect that the lease might soon be operating at a loss, which was something it could not abide. Discussions about plugging the wells had followed, leading to arguments and many, many lawyers. Finally, in 1991, Exxon plugged and abandoned the field.

Not long after, however, the price of oil began to creep back up, and the Legislature promised tax breaks to operators who reopened old wells. Every landowner in the oil patch, and every independent oilman, rushed to get into the play. They knew that major companies

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