Offshore Royalty Relief: Status During the COVID-19 Pandemic


Offshore Royalty Relief: Status During the
COVID-19 Pandemic

Updated May 22, 2020
U.S. oil and gas producers face financial challenges stemming from demand reduction, oversupply, and
commodity price drops during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some Members of Congress have asked the
Department of the Interior (DOI) to offer royalty relief on federal oil and gas leases—a temporary
reduction or waiver of the royalties that companies pay the federal government on production from these
leases. Some other Members have opposed a comprehensive royalty relief program for federal oil and gas
producers. DOI has stated that affected producers may apply for royalty relief individually using existing
clarifying that the Department does not plan to pursue a new program of blanket royalty relief at
this time.
Existing Offshore Royalty Relief Options
For offshore oil and gas production, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA; 43 U.S.C
broadly authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to reduce or eliminate royalties in order to
“promote increased production on the lease area.” The law also contains provisions (43 U.S.C
)) that apply to leases in specified geographic areas (primarily certain deepwater areas of the
Gulf of Mexico). Implementing regulations are issued by DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental
Enforcement (BSEE; 30 C.F.R. Part 203) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM; 30 C.F.R.
Part 560)
. Both BSEE and BOEM administer different types of royalty relief, as specified in a 2011
memorandum of agreement.
BOEM is responsible for “automatic” royalty relief, meaning incentive-based relief provisions that are
contained in lease agreements issued by BOEM. This includes most deepwater royalty relief, stemming
from the Outer Continental Shelf Deepwater Royalty Relief Act of 1995 (DWRRA; P.L. 104-58), which
authorized BOEM to provide for specified volumes of royalty-free production—in some cases subject to
price thresholds—on certain leases issued after the act’s passage for tracts in water at least 200 meters
deep in most parts of the Gulf of Mexico, in order to promote development of these areas. Under the
Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-58), BOEM also implements automatic royalty relief for shallow-
water deep gas
leases, applicable to wells drilled beyond certain depths in waters less than 200 meters
deep for the purpose of natural gas production.
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BSEE is responsible for administering “discretionary” royalty relief programs, which are the need-based
programs that may be most relevant to producers affected by COVID-19. BSEE administers several
different types of discretionary royalty relief.
Discretionary deepwater royalty relief. Under the DWRRA and related BSEE
regulations, producers may apply for need-based royalty relief (separate from the
automatic royalty relief administered by BOEM) for deepwater leases issued before the
law’s November 1995 enactment in authorized “fields,” and for other defined
“expansion” and “development” projects. Producers must demonstrate that the field or
project would be uneconomic if royalties were paid, but would become economic with
royalty relief.
Discretionary relief for ultra-deep and deep gas wells. Separate from the automatic
royalty relief provisions discussed above for shallow-water deep gas wells, producers
meeting specified criteria may qualify for discretionary relief where ultra-deep wells or
deep gas wells are present in water depths of less than 400 meters.
End-of-life royalty relief. BSEE’s end-of-life royalty relief program applies to producing
leases, regardless of water depth, on which resources are nearing depletion and meet
certain qualifying criteria. If BSEE determines that relief will result in increased
production on the lease, the royalty rate may be reduced by half subject to certain
Special case royalty relief. BSEE regulations also provide an option for producers to
request “special case” royalty relief in situations that do not qualify for BSEE’s other
established programs. Leases or projects must demonstrate at least two of five qualifying
characteristics listed in the regulations, such as that the lessee can recover “significant
additional resources” that would not be possible without royalty relief; and/or that the
lessee has made recent “major efforts to reduce operating costs.” If BSEE determines that
the lease or project is uneconomic, it may grant royalty relief in the amount that would
make it economic.
Current Status and Issues
BSEE has received relatively few applications in recent years for special case royalty relief. For example,
over the FY2004-FY2019 period, the agency administered a total of 13 special-case applications, 9 of
which were approved. Reportedly, as of May 22, 2020, four companies had begun the application process
during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 30, 2020, BSEE posted new guidance for producers on special
case royalty relief. Applicants are to follow standard application procedures as outlined in BSEE
The guidance states that, “while past special case applications were for leases or projects that
included the drilling of a well(s), BSEE envisions applications on a lease or unit basis will be pursued
where no drilling will be included.”
Some stakeholders reportedly have expressed dissatisfaction with BSEE’s guidance and, more generally,
with DOI’s reliance on existing procedures for seeking royalty relief during the pandemic. They have
sought more comprehensive royalty relief initiatives, or measures to expedite the individual application
which is complex and involves multiple steps (as shown in a February 2020 BSEE flowchart
[slide 19]). They contend that more rapid royalty relief could help producers avoid having to shut in wells
for financial reasons and that royalty relief generally would have fewer market-distorting effects than
some other proposals to aid the sector.
Some other stakeholders oppose the idea of comprehensive or expedited royalty relief for oil and gas
operators. Some view the statutory goal of royalty relief—to promote increased production—as being at

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odds with the current situation of oversupply. Some also question whether royalty relief will provide
meaningful help in mitigating price declines (link requires login) or preserving jobs. They further contend
that the federal government needs energy royalties to fund key state and federal programs, such as (for
offshore royalties) the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Historic Preservation Fund, and
conservation programs in the Gulf Coast states. Some recently introduced bills (H.R. 6289, H.R. 6707, S.
S. 3611) would repeal DOI’s authority in the OCSLA to grant discretionary royalty relief.

Author Information

Laura B. Comay

Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

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