All of us have indulged in the fantasy of receiving a letter from a big-city law firm, perhaps in New York or Chicago, or even London, stating that it represents the estate of some distant, unknown relative who recently died; oh, and he had no offspring,
so his vast private fortune goes to you -- his sole heir. Or maybe your personal fantasy runs more along the lines of Jed Clampett's story in that '60s TV sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies. The show's catchy theme song encapsulates the story nicely (cue the banjos):
Come listen to my story 'bout a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed. And then one day he was shooting at some food, and up from the ground come a bubbling crude: oil, that is -- black gold, Texas tea ...
I'm here to tell you that such dreams come true in real life. I should know; it just happened to me! Seriously. In fact, my story is identical to Jed's ... well, similar. I'm not a mountaineer, my family is contentedly living off the meaty bone, and I didn't discover oil while shooting holes in the ground with my hunting rifle. But like Jed Clampett, I am presently out of work -- and discover oil I did; or rather, it discovered me. It's natural gas, actually, but try working "natural gas" into a sitcom theme song. (I'm looking ahead here -- you know, trying to think like an oilman? I wonder who will play me. Gawd, tell me it's not Bradley Cooper. Bradley Cooper is so over-exposed. And I don't like Bradley Cooper's hair.)
This probably makes little sense, so let me explain. I have over 28 years of federal service, first in the military and, most recently, as a government attorney. My agency recently offered early retirements to qualifying employees. It turns out that I fell within that group. And although I didn't have enough federal civilian service to stop working completely, I was able to land a position outside the federal government. So I accepted the retirement offer. My new job doesn't start until December, and I figured I'd kick back for a month -- you know, ride the bike, do a little writing, and generally indulge in the sorts of things that retirees enjoy ...
... until I got The Email.
It was from an "Independent Landman." A what? I asked myself. I turned to the all-knowing Oracle, aka the Internet. Yahoo! Answers informed me that "Landmen, independent or otherwise, work out the details of the relationship between a landowner and the exploration company, or between two, or more exploration companies." This particular Landman was searching for the heirs of one Stephen Stutler, and had tracked me down through public records. He told me that over a century ago, old Stephen had acquired oil and gas rights to a West Virginia property, and new drilling and "pooling" techniques would now enable the extraction of gas from that property.
My first thought was, Right, now you'll tell me I just need to deposit $1,000 into a Nigerian bank account and you'll start drilling right away. But then I recalled that I did indeed have a great grandfather named Stephen, and I remembered my dad driving the family down to West Virginia in the '60s (perhaps not coincidentally at the height of The Beverly Hillbillies' popularity), to look into some oil and gas rights the family reportedly owned. Nothing came of that -- at least not then.
Okay, the Independent Landman now had my attention. He went on to explain that Stephen Stutler had leased the drilling rights on the property to an oil company, and that the lease now had to be modified to enable the company to employ the new drilling methods. He wanted to send me a proposed modification to the lease so that the oil company could extract the precious gas. Oh yeah, and the lease called for the payment of royalties to Stephen's heirs. That would include ... me.
I did some research and found that the Independent Landman and oil company he worked for were legitimate (or as legitimate as an oil company can be). I mentioned all this to a friend, who casually told me he was receiving royalties under a similar lease arrangement one of his ancestors had made. He showed me his most recent check. It turns out he's getting tens of thousands of dollars -- a month! (Am I the only one who didn't have one of these things?)
Well, the next thing you know old Jed's a millionaire. His kinfolk said "Jed move away from here" ...
Well, I thought to myself. I work for a living. I'm not rich but I'm reasonably comfortable, what with my retirement annuity and my new salary and my book royalties -- see the book here (sorry). The point is, I didn't see why I would want to bother with all of this unearned-money talk.
... yeah, right.
I told the Landman to mail me the proposed modification, as well as the original lease. And he did. His cover letter informed me:
In October 2008, XXXX Corporation completed the acquisition of certain oil and gas leases located in several counties of West Virginia. At the present time XXXX is in the process of finalizing our plans to drill one or more horizontal natural gas well(s) on the above oil and gas lease. According to public records, you are the owner of an undivided interest in the subject property.
Sweet J.R. Ewing! All I had to do to haul in this untold largesse -- which I told myself was the product of my personal thrift, industry and careful financial planning (yeah, I'm going with that) -- was sign the lease modification. As I read through the original 1909 lease, the final line of Jed Clampett's tale in the Beverly Hillbillies' theme song kept coming back to me:
They said Californee is the place you oughta be, so he loaded up the truck and he moved to Beverly -- Hills that is: swimming pools, movie stars.
I already live in "Californee," but the idea of putting a "see-ment pond" (as the Clampetts called it) in my backyard sure did sound swell.
I promptly started writing my "thanks, but no thanks" letter to my new employer ...
Next post -- Part II: %#>* you, Jed Clampett.
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