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The Self-Enforcing Provisions of Oil and Gas Unit Operating Agreements: Theory and Evidence

  • Gary D. Libecap
  • James L. Smith

This paper extends the existing theory and empirical investigation of unitization contracts. It highlights the importance of incentive-compatibility and self-enforcement and the bargaining problems faced in achieving viable, long-term contracts. We argue that only if the parties to a unitization contract have unit production shares that are the same as their cost shares will the contract be incentive compatible. Using a data base of sixty unit operating agreements, we measure the industry's actual behavior against the principles of production from a common pool. Our survey of units that have only one production phase and that are relatively homogeneous reveals that such equal sharing rules are always found and they appear to encourage the parties to behave optimally. In more complex units with multiple production phases and/or separate concentrations of oil and gas (gas caps) we find deviations from the theoretical ideal. In the case of multi-phase units, we find equal cost and production shares within phases, but not across phases. A pre-set trigger for shifting from one production phase to the next helps to maintain optimal behavior. For gas cap units, however, we generally do not find the equal sharing rule. Conflicts and rent dissipation follow as illustrated by the case of the Prudhoe Bay Unit. The paper describes the desirable contract rules for avoiding moral hazard. It also shows how the effects of those rules can be replicated in difficult situations.

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File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w7142.pdf
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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 7142.

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Date of creation: May 1999
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Publication status: published as Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, Vol. 12, no. 2 (1999): 526-548.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7142
Note: IO EEE
Contact details of provider: Postal: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.
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Web page: http://www.nber.org
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  1. Wiggins, Steven N & Libecap, Gary D, 1985. "Oil Field Unitization: Contractual Failure in the Presence of Imperfect Information," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(3), pages 368-85, June.
  2. Douglas W. Allen & Dean Lueck, 1993. "Transaction Costs and the Design of Cropshare Contracts," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 24(1), pages 78-100, Spring.
  3. Smith, James L, 1987. "The Common Pool, Bargaining, and the Rule of Capture," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 25(4), pages 631-44, October.
  4. Libecap, Gary D & Wiggins, Steven N, 1984. "Contractual Responses to the Common Pool: Prorationing of Crude Oil Production," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(1), pages 87-98, March.
  5. Klein, Benjamin, 1996. "Why Hold-Ups Occur: The Self-Enforcing Range of Contractual Relationships," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 34(3), pages 444-63, July.
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