The opinion of the court was delivered by: MCLAUGHLIN
An opinion of the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior, dated August 8, 1947,
held that the Mineral Leasing Act did not authorize the issuance of oil and gas leases on submerged coastal areas below low tide off the shores of the United States. The opinion of the Solicitor was based on the following grounds (1) the Mineral Leasing Act is a statute for the disposition of public lands, but lands located below the high water mark, are not now and never have been considered public lands of the United States, (2) lands affected by the Act are to be surveyed and described by legal subdivisions of the public land surveys and these surveys have not heretofore extended beyond the high tide line, (3) since there had been no judicial determination that these lands belonged to the United States at the time of passage of the Act nor at the time of the amendatory Act of August 8, 1946,
it could not be assumed that Congress intended to subject these lands to the provisions of the Act.
On the basis of the Solicitor's opinion the applications of Plaintiffs were denied by the Director of the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior. Plaintiffs filed appeals with the Department with respect to each of the applications which had been rejected by the Director. In a series of decisions officials of the Department affirmed the decisions of the Director of the Bureau of Land Management.
Plaintiffs then instituted the present action which seeks review of the decisions of the Department of the Interior and a declaratory judgment as to whether the Mineral Leasing Act applies to the submerged coastal lands, also an injunction directing the Defendant to revoke the rejections of the applications and to reinstate these applications and to cause each of them to be considered on its merits under the provisions of the Mineral Leasing Act.
Jurisdiction was invoked upon the ground of diversity of citizenship and on the further ground that the interpretation of a Federal Statute is involved, also under the general equity jurisdiction of the Court, under the Declaratory Judgment Act,
and under Section 10 of the Administrative Procedure Act.
The requisite jurisdictional amount was also pleaded.
Pursuant to a motion to intervene the Signal Oil and Gas Company and the Southwest Exploration Company were granted leave to intervene as parties defendant in this action. These intervenors are producing oil companies which originally operated under a lease from the State of California. Since the decision in United States v. California,
they have been operating under the joint authority and supervision of the Secretary of the Interior and State officials, pursuant to a stipulation entered by the Attorneys General of the United States and California, pending the establishment of the dividing line between the marginal sea and the inland waters of the State.
Interpretation of the Mineral Leasing Act is the first issue before the Court. The contention of Plaintiffs is that Congress did not intend to use the term 'public domain' in the title of the Act in the restrictive meaning of lands subject to sale or other disposal under general land laws. They argue that the scope of the Act is determined by the language of Section 1, 'deposits * * * and lands containing such deposits owned by the United States', thus making all lands or deposits owned by the United States, with the exception of those areas specifically excluded by this section, subject to the provisions of the Act. Defendant relies on the interpretation of the Interior Department Solicitor, i.e., only public lands of the United States, or those deposits reserved to the United States when the surface of public lands was patented to individuals, are subject to the Act.
Public domain, the term used in the title of the Mineral Leasing Act, has been held equivalent to the term public land.
Public lands have been generally defined as those lands of the United States which are subject to sale or other disposal under general laws.
Not all lands of the United States are classified as public lands. Lands to which rights have attached and become vested through full compliance with an applicable land law are no longer part of the mass of public lands,
nor are lands which have been reserved or appropriated for some lawful public purpose,
i.e., National Parks, Military and naval reservation, etc.
The goal in interpreting this Act, as with any other statute, is to determine the true intent and object of the legislature in the enactment.
Mr. Justice Reed, in United States v. American Trucking Associations, supra, a comprehensive opinion dealing with statutory construction, said at page 542-544 of 310 U.S., at page 1063 of 60 S. Ct.:
'In the interpretation of statutes, the function of the courts is easily stated. It is to construe the language so as to give effect to the intent of Congress. There is no invariable rule for the discovery of that intention. To take a few words from their context and with them thus isolated to attempt to determine their meaning, certainly would not contribute greatly to the discovery of the purpose of the draftsmen of a statute, * * *. When aid to construction of the meaning of words, as used in the statute, is available, there certainly can be no 'rule of law' which forbids its use, however clear the words may appear on 'superficial examination."
The legislative history of the Mineral Leasing Act taken in connection with the conditions which prevailed at that time is indicative of the intent of Congress when it enacted this legislation.
The placer mining law
was the only method of entering and locating on public lands containing minerals until the year 1909. Under that system the claimant was entitled to a patent giving him title to all minerals. Since the aim of the Government was to facilitate the development of the public domain it was very liberal in disposing of its public lands, including mineral lands. When the program for conservation of the natural resources of the nation was instituted in the early years of this century, it was realized that if disposal of the public domain mineral lands continued at the pace which then prevailed all mineral lands would be in private ownership within a short time, and the Government would be obliged to purchase the valuable minerals which it had practically given away. In order to prevent such an occurrence a Presidential proclamation of September 27, 1909, withdrew large areas of mineral lands from entry and location 'in aid of proposed legislation affecting the future use and disposition of petroleum deposits in the public domain'. Because there was considerable doubt as to the President's authority to make such a withdrawal, Congress passed the Pickett Act
which authorized the President in his discretion to 'withdraw from settlement, location, sale, or entry any of the public lands'. Orders issued pursuant to the Act withdrew additional vast areas of the public lands which were believed to contain minerals, from entry and location.
As a result of these withdrawals the lands and the minerals which they contained remained the property of the nation. The Government was still anxious that both lands and minerals be developed but desired to establish an intelligent, long-range plan which would provide development and at the same time protect the interests of the nation. In pursuance of this objective two bills
were introduced in the 63rd Congress. The purpose of one was to open the withdrawn lands to entry but to reserve all minerals to the United States when a patent was issued. This bill was enacted into the Surface Patent Act.
The other bill set out a plan for the exploration and disposition of the minerals reserved to the United States, through a leasing program which would reserve a royalty to the United States. It is obvious from the legislative history of the Act that it was intended to apply only to the mineral fuels and mineral fertilizers in the public lands. The House ...