In re Venoco, LLC, No. 20-1061 (3d Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Venoco operated a drilling rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, transporting oil and gas to its Onshore Facility for processing. Venoco did not own the Offshore Facility but leased it from the California Lands Commission. Venoco owned the Onshore Facility with air permits to use it. Following a 2015 pipeline rupture, Venoco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and abandoned its leases, relinquishing all rights in the Offshore Facility.
Concerned about public safety and environmental risks, the Commission took over decommissioning the rig and plugging the wells, paying Venoco $1.1 million per month to continue operating the Offshore and Onshore Facilities. After a third-party contractor took over operations, the Commission agreed to pay for use of the Onshore Facility. The Commission, as Venoco’s creditor, filed a $130 million claim for reimbursement of plugging and decommissioning costs. Before the confirmation of the liquidation plan, Venoco and the Commission unsuccessfully negotiated a potential sale of the Onshore Facility to the Commission. The Commission stopped making payments, arguing it could continue using the Onshore Facility without payment under its police power.
After the estates’ assets were transferred to a liquidation trust, the Trustee filed an adversary proceeding, claiming inverse condemnation, against California. The district court affirmed the bankruptcy court’s rejection of California's assertion of Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. The Third Circuit affirmed. By ratifying the Bankruptcy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, states waived their sovereign immunity defense in proceedings that further a bankruptcy court’s exercise of its jurisdiction over the debtor's and the estate's property.