Scratching the Surface – Working as a Surface Landman

In the pie chart of different landmen, most of the pie is taken up by field landmen. The guys out there buying leases, building runsheets, and generally keeping things moving have always been the greatest proportion of landmen. Next up you’ve got your in house landmen. They think they’re “the only landmen” a lot of the time, but don’t listen to that bullshit. A lot of what they do is the behind the scenes work internally to get wells ready to drill, in production, packaged, and then sold. That’s the name of the game right? But what about that small little piece of the pie labeled “surface landman?” Where do they fit in? Well, a lot of people would say “they’re right of way agents not landmen.” True, a lot of right of way agents end up doing surface work because there is a natural progression and overlap…but you can also have a landman that moves into right of way and surface work also. Learning how surface negotiations and management works is a necessary component of being a truly well rounded independent landman.

Learning how to Live off the Land

Working as a surface landman is more relationship dependent than working as a field landman or an in house landman. There are going to be landowners you encounter that will be a constant friend or foe for years to come as the wells are developed and produced, so you better learn to get along. As the face of an energy company, the surface landman is responsible for a lot of different things, but the most important is usually acting as a single point of contact. That can mean you’re a lightning rod in the middle of the storm, or maybe it’s more appropriate to say that you’re the fan all the monkeys keep throwing shit at…regardless, I think you get the idea. When you’re not out in the field with surveyors/construction crews/engineers/pumpers, you’ll be on the phone or your computer dealing with landowners or their attorneys.

The growing needs of an energy company that is actively developing a lease are one of life’s great challenges because you will never be able to keep up. You’ve got to live life in the moment. Tomorrow they are going to change everything that you worked on today, so you have to stay nimble. Don’t get bogged down, and never let the landowners or their attorneys pin you down on something. When the new leases are drilled and all the field and in house landmen have moved on to the shiny new things, the surface landman’s job isn’t even halfway done. Buying easements for electrical lines to all your wells, working with the slow moving ice bergs known as electrical co-ops, and then the nightmare of getting your sales lines tied into a gathering system are tasks that most people would rather not fuck with. You can read more about Easement and Right of Way (ROW) Acquisitions on the MYR Land Services page here.

Learning to Multitask

You’re going to have to keep things moving forward on a ton of different projects/prospects/leases/landowners all at the same time. This is something that overwhelms a lot of people, and that’s why sometimes a really great landman just isn’t cut out for surface work. Nothing seems to warrant the “deep dive” into the details that landmen are known for, because you need to quickly get a read on the situation, assess what needs to be done, start moving those balls forward, and then immediately jump to the next area to do the same thing. If you are one of those talented multitaskers and happen to be a “people person” then this is a great fit for you. Most people are going to be one or the other, and have to try to play to their strengths to cover their weaker skillset. Above all, the surface landman is a project manager that no one would ever allow “project manager” status to be bestowed upon.

When the cow jumps out in front of a sand truck, you’re going to get that call. When the waterlines get hung up on a hauler truck and flood the county road, you’ll get lots of calls. If the powerlines get struck by lightning and burn 1,000 acres of the landowners property, expect a lot of calls. Whenever there is construction going on, everyone is going to call you and say things like “can I move this line 5 feet over to the west?” You need to know what’s going on with all of these projects so you can continue to put out fires as they occur. It’s draining. You never get a break. The second you feel like you can relax, the phone’s gonna ring again. Oilfield is 24/7, 365, and a surface landman gets no holidays, vacations, or sick days.

Hidden Rewards

The relationships you develop while working in this high paced high stress environment can be your biggest asset for the rest of your career if you play it right. You’ll meet engineers, construction foremen, landowners, ranch managers, attorneys, other in house landmen, completions engineers, drilling engineers, and all kinds of consultants covering every aspect of land work. Make a good impression, get your shit done, and keep the bitching to a minimum, because you never know when you’re going to be calling those people for help on the next job. One of the most crucial aspects of working as a surface landman is KNOWING WHO TO CALL. You might not know what to do, but you need to know who does. Making things happen quickly is the master stroke here, so if you can cut out hours of emailing and phonecalls by going straight to the person making the decision, make it happen.

Surface work is a never ending process even after everything is built and in production. You have required maintenance, workovers, re-fracs, offsets, and an endless list of other tasks that are going to require somebody who knows the landowners and the locations. Make yourself indispensable. Earning a landowners trust is the dream, but you’ve got to make sure that the company you are representing understands and appreciates that trust and won’t shoot you in the back just to save a bit of money down the line. Then you get into the balancing act of playing “man in the middle.”


At some point, if you have pissed someone off, you’ll be accused to favoritism. That’s just going to happen. The longer you stay in this business the more likely it is to happen. Again, knowing what’s going on and what has gone on with all of your different projects is crucial to a fast defense. It’s the only way you’ll survive. That is, assuming you even know somebody is shooting at you…make sure you are defusing as many of the landmines as you can along the way, because you might need to turn around and run back through that same pasture in the future. A lot of what a surface landman does is risk mitigation, but because it’s done IN THE MOMENT, it can become a liability in the future. Try to work out those situations as you move forward…but it’s a hard task since you are trying to keep up with everything else going on.

Keeping a contact list/log is one of the best ways to protect yourself. Knowing when you talked to someone and what you talked about is a good idea in any business, but especially when you’re working as a surface landman. You’re going to be working in no mans land, just as likely to get hit by friendly fire as by an enemy sniper. Navigating the trenches and landmines is just part of the job, and some surface landmen have made their entire career around that skill. Eventually, all of us step on a landmine. Don’t beat yourself up too bad, shit happens, just try to clean it up as best you can and move on. Assuming you survive the encounter, of course.

This is part of the independent Landman Handbook

Make sure to check out the other posts in this series

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