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 like Exxon always left oil in the ground when they abandoned a field. At some point it cost a giant enterprise more to extract the last pools of oil than to ignore them, but an independent operator with a smaller overhead could make a nice profit with those leftovers. So when Glenn Lynch appeared in 1993 and told the O’Connors that he wanted to reenter the Mary Ellen O’Connor field, it looked like a win-win deal for everyone.

Except it hadn’t turned out that way. As droplets of water ran down the sweating glasses of iced tea, Lynch told T. Michael his story. He didn’t like delivering bad news, but here it was: He was having far more trouble than he could have ever imagined getting back into Exxon’s old wells. Sure, you expected some difficulties, but he’d had problems on almost every one of them. The experts he’d hired had never seen anything like it: The wells were full of junk—pipes, wrenches, tubing, even an upside-down drill bit—and the way they had been plugged made it difficult, expensive, and perhaps impossible for anyone else to get back in. Lynch was way over budget and losing a lot of money fast.

Worse, he believed the wells had been intentionally damaged and that the perpetrator had lied to the Texas Railroad Commission about their condition on the official forms that Lynch had relied on as a template for reentry. Lynch had thought about it long and hard, he told the O’Connors, and he’d come to a decision about who had sabotaged these wells: It had to be his predecessor on the lease.

“Are you sure?” T. Michael asked Lynch. He was thinking, There is no way Exxon did this. They’re just not that kind of people. But Lynch was upset, the corners of his mouth tight. It was crystal clear to him that someone wanted to make sure that those wells were never reentered. His company, Emerald Oil and Gas, intended to sue, and, he said slowly, he hoped the O’Connors would join in.

By this time T. Michael’s appetite was long gone. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket, flipped it open, and called one of his cowboys. “I’ll be delayed,” he said. He knew as well as Lynch that all kinds of crazy things could go wrong when you reentered a well. He also knew he couldn’t in good conscience force his operator to keep going and possibly lose his shirt. But suing Exxon? That could be a very dangerous game. Exxon rarely lost lawsuits. It could outlast and outspend just about anyone, even a family with resources like the O’Connors. He told Lynch he’d need to think it over.

It didn’t take him long. T. Michael had been told from the day he was born that he was just a steward—his

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