August 13, 2013

Mock trial gives law students taste of real oil and gas case

The lawyers stood before the members of the Kansas Corporation Commission arguing a case they’d all heard before.

The lawyers stood before the members of the Kansas Corporation Commission arguing a case they’d all heard before.

At stake was absolutely nothing. In fact, the case was decided two years ago.

It was a carefully staged re-enactment, part of a new partnership between the commission and the Washburn University School of Law to train the next generation of oil and gas attorneys, in a state where oil and gas law is becoming an increasingly bigger deal.

Granted, you probably won’t see “Law and Order: Special Oil and Gas Unit” coming to NBC anytime soon.

But with hydraulic fracturing bringing once-dead oil fields back to life and even proposals to drill underneath Wichita’s Century II convention center, it’s a growing area of law with major implications pretty much across Kansas.

Washburn Law professor David Pierce, director of the university’s Oil and Gas Law Center, said oil and gas cases are a lot like any other property dispute, except, “It’s sometimes 5,000 feet underground and you can’t see it.”

Monday’s re-enactment of an Ellis County case highlighted the three main issues that come up in KCC oil and gas cases: getting as much product out of the ground as possible, ensuring that drillers don’t steal oil from neighboring property and protecting the environment.

Commissioners were candid about the fact that they’re lawyers, not engineers or scientists, and that attorneys practicing before them need to boil technical testimony down into something they can understand.

“We’re just political appointees at the end of the day,” said Commission Chairman Mark Sievers. “We don’t come to this job with a lot of technical expertise.”

The case picked for the re-enactment was “as good as it gets in oil and gas,” Sievers said.

The drillers’ lawyer, Stanford Smith, argued they needed exceptions to oil-well siting rules to maximize the chance of striking oil and minimize the chance of doing damage by drilling through previous wells that were abandoned and capped.

The opposing counsel, David Bengston, argued that the project would siphon oil out from under neighboring oil leases.

Both attorneys are from Wichita and were reprising roles they played in real life. For the record, Smith won the case in 2011.

Pierce said the re-enactment capped a three-day weekend seminar that included full-day lectures Saturday and Sunday and pulled in about 50 students and graduates from as far away as Hawaii.

Students said they appreciated the opportunity to see how the regulatory process really works.

Student Aaron Friess said he grew up in oil and gas country in McPherson and decided to make it his career after taking some preliminary courses in law school.

“Hearing from the lawyers and commissioners how it all fits together, that’s pretty helpful,” he said.

Juan Pablo Gordillo, a Bolivian who has lived in Kansas for 10 years, said he was struck by how cordial the proceedings were.

“It wasn’t as adversarial as a regular trial would be, which I find very relieving,” he said.

Although both Washburn and the KCC headquarters are in Topeka, Wichita was chosen for the demonstration case because the KCC oil and gas division is based here and most of its hearings are conducted at the local office.

“Wichita’s the hub of the oil and gas industry in Kansas, legal as well as technical and regulatory,” Pierce said.

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