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Court rules “Dueling Dinos” belong to landowners (sciencemag.org)
46 points by sohkamyung 1 day ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments

What were the legal arguments which swayed the minority of judges to vote for fossil rights falling under mineral rights?

You can read the full court finding here: https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Di... (linked from the article)

The concurring opinion delves into the common and dictionary definitions of the word "mineral" for the purposes of mineral rights and finds that fossils, in general, are not valuable because of their mineral content, so they should not fall under mineral rights laws.

The dissenting opinion cites previous cases the same court had handled in mineral rights disputes and further notes that the legislature had already passed a law clarifying fossil rights with the exception to any fossils currently involved in court cases, so the question at hand was whether this particular fossil was considered a mineral under Montana law. The dissenting opinion also points out that diamonds, composed entirely of carbon, pass the ruling's "rare and exceptional" test for value, despite being composed of something that's neither rare nor valuable. So why are these fossils being treated differently from diamonds?

As a fossil nerd I'm glad the ruling landed the way it did, but as a totally-ignorant-of-jurisprudence-layman, the dissenting opinion is more compelling and seems better written.

Since it was a 4-3 decision I was a little curious about the political leanings of the justices, but that data doesn't appear to be available.

Thanks. That's so interesting. I couldn't think of any legal reason to support the suit, since parties to a "mineral rights" contract are obviously thinking in terms of mining, and a valid contract must involve a "meeting of the minds." But it seems as though to some judges the words of the contract matter more than the parties' intents.

Does anyone else think it’s insane that you can own the land your house is on, but not under it?

Is there a good reason this exists? Is it like that in other parts of the developed world?

It varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but generally speaking you do own the land under your house.

You (or a previous owner) can choose to sell or lease the minerals under your house.

It is so difficult to buy land without being informed of its mineral rights that it might actually be technically impossible to acquire land without knowing beforehand the status of those rights unless you specifically set out to do so as an experiment or something.

Like by covering your eyes, plugging your ears, and screaming "LA LA LA LA" as you initial the page of the contract describing mineral rights. Or not actually reading the results of a title search.

So you own the dirt, but people don't want dirt they want gold, oil, and other such things.

The only thing the judge said was that dinosaur bones aren't "minerals".

If they had found ancient pottery or buried gold coins those also aren't minerals. Yeah gold coins, even though gold is considered a "mineral" stamped coins are not for the purposes of mineral rights.

If a previous owner sold the rights to the minerals in the dirt under your house, that's on you for not paying attention during the sale-- assuming you wanted the rights to begin with.

Does it mean you have to let them come and actually dig in your land? Or just tolerate the drilling sound as they bore from outside your territory?

You have to let them come in, but they have to pay you to lease the surface easement they use from you. That lease doesn't begin to approach the value of the minerals though.

Depends on the original grant. And how the grant is interpreted in current circumstances.

The prior owner may have granted use of the land for mining without further compensation or requiring the surface be usable.

Surface mining in Appalachia for coal is a good example.

A modest survey of the topic:

Mineral Rights in Central Appalachia: A Brief History of the Broad Form Deed in Kentucky and Tennessee Blakely Elizabeth Whilden


“ Following the valuable discoveries, Jerry and Robert Severson, two brothers who sold the land to the Murrays, argued they were the partial owners. That’s because they had kept a share of the rights to the minerals under the land. In some states, ownership of oil, gas, and minerals can be separated from the surface land.”

They bought the land with an agreement that the former owners had mineral rights. Gas companies are know for purchasing the rights to pump oil from landowners. It’s pretty common in areas where people own larger tracts of land, as it gives those landowners a bit of income (though of course the downside is that the the mining can damage the property).

>(though of course the downside is that the the mining can damage the property).

In my jurisdiction at least, the owner of the mineral rights is not allowed to disturb any buildings and they have to put the land back to an acceptable state before finishing up.

That's the theory, but there are remarkably few consequences for oil companies that don't do the right thing, and even where there are nominally consequences, you have to fight very hard for anyone to enforce them.

For example, in Iowa, if an oil pipeline spills, the oil company's damages are capped at something like $1M. IIRC that's in total across the state per spill, not per landowner; you can imagine costs to actually clean things up being far in excess of that. They're essentially allowed to externalize all the environmental/health/safety risk to the landowners, nearby residents and workers, the state, etc. And that's in a situation where the pipeline company was allowed to seize use of the land under eminent domain. [1] So the landowners had no choice and will have essentially no recourse if there are problems.

[1] My parents fought this seizure and lost in the Iowa Supreme Court. They're appealing to the US Supreme Court. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/crime-and-court...

Jesus that sounds horrible.

You and your family have my sympathies.

That is certainly not right or just.

Good luck in your legal battles!

Thanks! To be clear: while the seizure actually happened, no spill has (yet) happened on their land, and I hope that part stays hypothetical. There has been reduced crop yields, lowered resale value, etc.

Not really (in the insane part). "Minerals" are a commodity that can be removed with mining and have value that way, land surface area is where you can build things and have value that way, in California and elsewhere there are also water rights to water that you have access to on your land, whether it comes from a well, a spring, or a waterway passing through it. (water deriving its value for agriculture primarily)

If someone said you can have this plot of land for $1M and all of the mineral rights too, or for $400,000 without the mineral rights, many buyers choose the latter, never intending to drill for oil, or frack, or mine for other minerals.

In Russia mineral rights are separate from the land rights and can't be owned by private entities. You can only lease mineral extraction rights from the state.

I think it's pretty insane that you can own a scarce natural resource like land in the first place.

Well modern land ownership in cities is not really that different from renting IMHO. It's surprisingly conditional and complicated. The land is still the sovereign property of whatever country you live in (with various increasingly localised bits of government also having some sovereignty).

"Owning" just means you have a limited bundle of legal rights pertaining to a certain place.

You can't build what you like (In Australia I'm not even legally allowed to run a cable inside a wall), there are quite hard limits to externalities and you still have to pay land rent (which is nominally for services, but of course you can't opt-out).

The main practical difference is the financial arrangement, you get a bunch of extra rights over a particular place which you can sell later on. It's also really nice to have the feeling that you can stay as long as you want.

There are lots of alternative ways things could work though, what would you do differently?

I mean we can get into the philosophical/legal nuances of what it means to "own" something. In NYC, there are air rights which partitions ownership of the literal air above you.

Should "owning" a piece of land entitle you to everything from the earths core all the way into deep space?

Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos

Traditionally it goes further, all the way to heaven and hell. But in modern times, air rights are limited to what you can actually use from the surface; airplanes don’t trespass, etc.


Heinlein wrote a short story on this premise, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Sold_the_Moon

because some time in the past one previous owner decided to sell that right. and later owners (you included) decided that you like the house / land so much that you agree to purchase in spite of the easement.

Imagine you own a 400 acre ranch on top of shale oil. You want to realize income from the oil without selling your ranch.

It’s kind of absurd that anyone can “own” land to begin with. It doesn’t actually make sense from first principles. So everything in land ownership is just a set of historical practices adopted for practical reasons like incentivizing investment.

There are practical implications to the alternative, where you hold absolute dominion over all the land under your house down to the magma.

- If you own all the water resources under your house, your neighbors can't operate a well -- it drains your water

- If you own all the minerals under your land, mining operations are functionally impossible. Mapping each lump of coal back to the parcel it's two miles under isn't practical -= not to mention needing to tunnel through someone's "land" (and you may hate mining, fine, but understand that coal mining was historically critical, and a lot of the houses on top of the coal mines were part of the economy that they powered. they weren't trying to shut down the industry.)

- Infrastructure projects become impossible. You think CA's high-speed rail land battles were fun? What if New York City needed to get permission from every landowner they build an aqueduct under? The water main would never get built.

If you don't own what's under your house, you or somebody who owned the land before you sold or relinquished the mineral rights to somebody else.

No particular reason this exists besides capitalism and maximizing efficiency.

Or, depending on the country, it was never part of the property right in the first place.

In Canada tree rights are a thing, and typically reserved to the Crown.

You have to find a very old parcel of land to acquire mineral, land and tree rights all together.

I think separable land rights considerably predate modern capitalism.

Things like water rights and "right to roam" are downright ancient, and it was pretty common that you could buy, lease or have customary rights to hunt, fish, take firewood etc without owning the land itself.

> Is there a good reason this exists?

Lobbying by resource extractors.

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