If you’ve driven around some of the lonely highways of Texas and seen a woman standing on a car’s hood frantically waving her phone around, don’t be alarmed. You may have spotted Rebecca Ponton, a Texas landman.

“We’re called ‘landmen’ even though there are a number of women who do this,” Ponton says.

Landmen, shorthand for “land manager,” are essential workers in Texas’ vast petroleum industry, though their niche role might sound extremely tedious to some: driving to remote courthouses to research property titles. It’s crucial work. Before an oil or gas exploration company can drill an exploratory well, it needs to know who owns the mineral rights in order to negotiate payment.

Although landmen don’t generally get their hands dirty (unless they’re handling dusty 19th century ledgers), the work requires plenty of digging. But, unlike oilmen with their massive wrenches and augers, Ponton and her colleagues toil away with laptops and mobile devices in quiet remote courthouses. Digital records in rural areas, where much of the oil and gas exploration occurs, are a rarity.

A Centuries-Old Paper Trail

Rebecca Ponton

“Ideally you want to create a title abstract, showing who owned the property and the rights going back to sovereignty, which is when the state began giving land grants,” she says. “At times you’ve got to go back to when Texas was a Spanish territory. It’s like a combination of genealogy and detective work.”

Digging through old assessor’s records, wills, and probate documents to figure out the true mineral rights owner is critical.

“There are cases where a family has owned a property for generations, but didn’t know the mineral rights had been sold or traded years before.”

Although many big oil companies have landmen on staff, Ponton is an independent, called out to projects as needed by various corporate clients when they need to get the chain of title to a middle-of-nowhere property pronto. Hence the hood dance.

It’s like a combination of genealogy and detective work.

“Some of these courthouses are in areas so remote that there’s no cell network,” she says. “When the client needs to communicate with you, or if you’ve got to get some information to them right away, you’ve got to hunt for a signal.”

Before the Oil Starts Flowing

But cell reception, a destination, and a tank of gas aren’t all a landman needs. One has to know the ins and outs of courthouses so small they’re often staffed by a single clerk who keeps irregular hours. It’s not uncommon for Ponton, after driving for several hours, to find that the courthouse is closed for a holiday — or for no apparent reason at all.

A Landman’s Life on the Road:
  • Average distance travelled: 1,000 to 5,000 miles per month
  • Vehicle: 2014 Mercedes Benz GLK
  • Tools of the Trade: Mobile phone, laptop, iPad, portable scanner
  • Time away from home: Two to five nights per week
  • Demographics: One-third of American landmen are women (AAPL)

Once inside, Ponton typically works through old dusty ledgers to see who owned what parcel over the years and whether the mineral rights were retained. Ponton brings her laptop and a portable scanner to document the necessary information, creates the abstract, and sends it on to the client. Ponton, who has family in the oil business, has always had an interest in the industry’s booms and busts. She took the first step toward becoming a certified landman about a decade ago through a program at the University of Texas at Austin.

During oil and gas booms Ponton spends much of her life in her car, going out on title hunting assignments. The current oil downturn has given her time to write a book about women in the industry, “Breaking the Gas Ceiling.”

“When you ask people who the big players are in oil and gas, they know the men,” Ponton says. “But there are also quite a few women who have made their mark.”