You’ve probably heard the old saw that a man’s home is his castle, but it probably never crossed your mind that you may not have the right to determine what happens to the moat or the dungeons. Depending on where you live, you may enjoy only “surface rights” to your property – that is, you may not control the rights to the minerals (iron, copper, silver, gold, oil, gas, etc.) beneath your property. In some states whose economies are built on mining, including Texas, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, ownership rights to what is on or above the surface may be separated from ownership rights to what is beneath it. If you purchased a piece of property but acquired only the surface rights, that means that you can develop the surface of your property, which includes building on it. You can even dig a basement or a foundation that delves below the surface, but you do not control the right to use, extract, or sell the minerals below the surface. In contrast, whoever owns the mineral rights may sell or lease those rights to a gas company, which might drill on your property without your permission.
The notion that mineral rights can be privately owned is unique to the United States. In many countries, mineral rights belong to the government or are considered the property of all the country’s citizens. Even if you retain the mineral rights to your property, you may find that you have less control than you would like. For example, in Pennsylvania, if a property owner does not sell or lease his mineral rights to a natural gas company, but his neighbor does, the gas company may still extract gas from his property as long as the company locates the point of extraction on the neighboring property. The property owner may not even be entitled to compensation unless he can prove that his property was the source of the gas/
Mineral rights can be valuable – you can be quite literally sitting on a gold mine – but unless you own those rights and understand how to protect and control them, you may enjoy no benefit from them.