Tidelands oil controversy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Political dispute and litigation beginning in 1945 regarding state versus federal ownership of submerged offshore lands, or tidelands.

The tidelands, a three-mile strip of submerged land along the coast, traditionally were controlled by the states. When California, Louisiana, and Texas issued offshore oil leases in the 1920’s and 1930’s, federal and state governments began to see the tidelands as a possible source of revenue. The first real challenge to the states’ jurisdiction was in 1945, when the Continental Shelf Proclamation gave the federal government jurisdiction over the mineral resources in submerged lands on the continental shelf. Litigation over tidelands began in May, 1945, when the federal government sought to enjoin Pacific Western Oil, a private corporation, from drilling offshore near Santa Barbara, California. This suit was strategically withdrawn in October in order to concentrate on the issue of state ownership in the cases United States v. California[case]California, United States v.[California, United States v.] (1947), United States v. Louisiana[case]Louisiana, United States v.[Louisiana, United States v.] (1947), and United States v. Texas[case]Texas, United States v.[Texas, United States v.] (1947). California and Louisiana claimed the tidelands three miles seaward from the low watermark. Texas claimed the distance of three maritime leagues.States’ rightsStates’ rightsPublic lands

This editorial cartoon satirizes the Republican Party’s decision to add state ownership of offshore oil to its platform during the 1952 presidential election.

(Library of Congress)

In the majority opinion in the tidelands cases, Justice Hugo L. Black denied all state claims to title, invoking “paramount” national rights. United States v. California[case]California, United States v.[California, United States v.] (1947) required cession of lands within the three-mile limit by all states. State regulatory activity regarding sponge or oyster beds might operate concurrently, but oil was a vital national resource. The tidelands decisions severely limited Pollard v. Hagan[case]Pollard v. Hagan[Pollard v. Hagan] (1845), which had upheld state ownership of submerged lands beneath navigable waterways.

Congress responded by passing remedial legislation, the Submerged Lands ActSubmerged Lands Act (1953), which reinvested ownership of tidelands in the states. This act was upheld in Alabama v. Texas[case]Alabama v. Texas[Alabama v. Texas] (1954). Further litigation in 1959 resulted in the Court’s acceptance of the historical three-mile territorial limit, with a three-maritime-league limit for Texas. Justice John M. Harlan II’s opinion in United States v. Louisiana[case]Louisiana, United States v.[Louisiana, United States v.] (1960) upheld the states’ rights claims on a historical basis. The decision marked an important reassessment of the balance between state and nation.

Further Reading
  • Bailey, Ernest R. The Tidelands Oil Controversy: A Legal and Historical Analysis. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1953.
  • Dary, Benjamin. Essential Injustice: When Legal Institutions Cannot Resolve Environmental and Land Use Disputes. New York: Springer Verlag, 1997.
  • Keeton, W. Page. “Federal and State Claims to Submerged Lands Under Coastal Waters.” Texas Law Review 25 (1947): 262.

California, United States v.

Federalism

Public lands

States’ rights and state sovereignty

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