How far below the earth’s surface do property rights extend? The conventional wisdom is that a landowner holds title to everything between the surface and the center of the earth. This article is the first legal scholarship to challenge the traditional view.
Graphic: Discover Magazine
It demonstrates that the “center of the earth” theory is poetic hyperbole, not binding law. Broadly speaking, the deeper the disputed region, the less likely courts are to recognize the surface owner’s title.
The emergence of new technologies for use of the deep subsurface—such as heat mining and carbon sequestration, both of which may help mitigate global climate change—requires that we develop a new model of subsurface ownership.
Accordingly, this article proposes and evaluates four alternative approaches to subsurface property rights. The preferred model would recognize the surface owner’s title for only 1000 feet downward. If adopted, this approach would eliminate over 99 percent of the supposed real property ownership in the United States.