Subsurface Rights in Land Tenure
WITH NEARLY 385 MILLION acres in the United States under lease for oil and gas in 1959, no study of land tenure in the United States would be complete without a discussion of the impact that commerce in subsurface rights has upon land value and use. This is particularly true of the Plain states and perhaps even more pertinent in the Southern Plains where traffic in mineral rights is more intensive and of longer duration.
It is the purpose of this chapter to discuss why and how both the real and the speculative aspects of subsurface rights directly and indirectly affect land tenure.
In the early history of the United States the utility of land was generally considered as lying in the surface stratum, and length and breadth were considered its important measurements. Little or no significance was attached to the third dimension, depth, until the discovery of valuable resources below the surface. The first settlers in the Great Plains states ascribed no significance whatever to the English common law doctrine that land includes not only the face of the earth, but everything over it and under it. It was only with the discovery of oil and gas in these states that landowners became conscious of the possibilities of income from the subsurface. As exploration and discoveries spread, the economic and legal significance of this hitherto ignored third dimension soon came to be of paramount importance.
It was soon after the discovery of " rock oil" in Pennsylvania in 1859 that certain legal questions began to arise. Unlike coal and other solid minerals, oil and gas are not confined to underground areas outlined by surface property lines. Instead, they are confined under