by Bobby D. Weaver
Surface rights are a part of the legal definition of land ownership. In an area where oil is discovered, the oil company leases the mineral rights to the subsurface in order to drill for and produce oil and gas. The surface rights remain with the landowner with the proviso that the oil company can build lease roads, drilling pads, and slush pits, and can conduct other activities necessary to find and produce oil and gas. In general the oil company gets the use of the subsurface and the landowner retains the use of the surface. It all sounds perfectly simple and straightforward if you say it real fast.
Now Toughy was one of those cowhands who, for personal and financial reasons, was forced to trade in his cherished ranching way of life for laboring in the oil patch. He was not particularly happy with his new lot in life, but it paid the bills. Then he discovered surface rights and his world changed dramatically.
It all began early one August morning on an oil lease down in the Spraberry Field a good ways south of Midland. When Toughy and his roustabout crew turned in at the cattle guard that day they spied this beat up old pickup sitting beside the lease road. Lounging against one fender was one of those long lean West Texas cowboy types with a 30/30 Winchester cradled in the bend of his left arm. He sauntered over to the crew truck and allowed that beginning the next day there would be a fee of five dollars per car and 20 dollars per truck for every vehicle that crossed the cattle guard. Everybody in the truck, being of a generally sound mind, declined to argue the point.
It seems that, what with all the activity going on and all the traffic and dust being raised, that the oilfield hands had been spreading their driving pattern out over the space of a hundred yards or so on either side of the lease road. That did not sit well with the cattleman, who was losing a considerable amount of valuable grazing space. In order to recoup his damages, the cattleman, who had leased the surface rights from the owner to run livestock, decided to institute a toll. By the time Toughy and the boys arrived for work the following morning the oil company had negotiated a monetary settlement with the cattleman and everything returned to normal. But it gave Toughy an idea.
Before long our hero found a likely looking piece of land, developed a grazing lease arrangement with the owner, and borrowed a bunch of money to buy some poor old second hand cows to go on the place. Sure enough along came this oil company constructing roads and building drilling locations and before you know it Toughy was collecting damages on a regular basis. When the oilies got around producing the wells it seems that the cowboy’s cattle regularly got into the slush pits and died from drinking the oil. Invariably, those particular cows turned out to be valuable registered livestock with pedigrees going back to at least William the Conquerer. Lord how the money rolled in!
Eventually Toughy perfected his skills to the point that in self defense the oil company made him a deal. They agreed to pay him twice the value of his surface lease if he would stop filing damage claims. With that money in hand our budding entrepreneur didn’t need his cattle anymore so he sold them and subleased the property to another down-on-his-luck cowboy.
After that old Toughy really got ambitious. He began to look for other leasing opportunities around the country and, using the same technique, soon had several similar operations going. The last I heard of him he was living on a nice little spread outside Amarillo, was still in the surface rights leasing/cow business, and was renowned across the land as the most successful rancher in cattle country without a single head of livestock to his name.
Spending 20 years laboring in greasy overalls in the oil patch and doing a hard time stretch collecting oral histories for Texas Tech has provided Bobby Weaver with a wealth of oil field yarns. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.