Relinquishing Riches: Auctions vs. Informal Negotiations in Texas Oil and Gas Leasing

Published in Revise and Resubmit, American Economic Review, 2019

This paper compares outcomes from informally negotiated oil and gas leases to those awarded via centralized auction. We use data on all contractual characteristics and production outcomes for a class of state-owned mineral rights overlying newly discovered shale formations in Texas, between 2005 and 2016. On roughly three quarters of this land, the Texas Relinquishment Act of 1919 authorizes private individuals who own surface-only rights to negotiate mineral leases on behalf of the public in exchange for half of the proceeds. The remainder are allocated via centralized auctions. Using variation from this natural experiment, we find that almost a century after leasing mechanisms were assigned, auctioned leases generate 67% larger up-front payments than negotiated leases do. The two mechanisms also allocate mineral rights to different oil and gas companies, and leases allocated by auction are 44% more productive. These results are consistent with theoretical intuitions that centralized, formal mechanisms, like auctions, outperform decentralized and informal mechanisms, in both seller revenues and allocative efficiency. Our findings have important implications for the more than $3 trillion of minerals owned by private individuals in the US, the vast majority of which transact in informal and decentralized settings.

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