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Thomas W. Merril & Henry E. Smith, Briggs v. Southwestern Energy Production: Hydraulic Fracturing and Subsurface Trespass, 16 J. Tort. L. 1 (2023).


Abstract: The tort of trespass to land has proven to be controversial as applied to airplane overflights (and more recently to drones) as well as to oil and gas production using hydraulic fracking technology. The key to applying trespass to intrusions above and below the surface of land is to distinguish between possession of land and the right to possess land. Surface owners have the right to possess the column of space above and below the surface (a kind of option value), but only to the extent that this space is subject to possible effective possession. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Briggs v. Southwestern Energy Production concluded that fracking can result in physical intrusions that can be detected using available monitoring technology. The court further concluded that such physical intrusions should be subject to trespass liability. We argue that these conclusions are correct insofar as such intrusions interfere with a surface owner’s possible effective possession – the action of the intruder necessarily means that the surface owner could also find it economically advantageous to engage in production activity in this portion of subsurface space itself. The decision confirms the utility of the law of trespass to the architecture of property, in that it establishes an indispensable baseline against which exchanges of rights and regulatory modifications of rights can occur.