no leaseholder has transferred the operating rights to another, and the Secretary should have had no trouble concluding that Maryland owned the operating rights.
However, as the Secretary points out, there is no legal impediment preventing the State of Maryland from transferring its operating rights without leasing its mineral interests. The statement of the offeror that the State has issued no lease for its fractional mineral interests, does not inform the Secretary whether Maryland retains the operating rights.
It is clear that even if Maryland had transferred its operating rights, plaintiff, as the lease-holder of 75% Of the mineral interests in the tract, would have owned a majority of the operating rights. However, the Secretary is charged by Congress with administering all public lands held by the United States, and his policy must be consistent. Knowledge of ownership of operating rights in the fractional interests not owned by the United States is certainly relevant and necessary to a cohesive leasing program by the Secretary. The regulation merely puts the burden on the offeror to supply information with regard to the tract he seeks to lease.
The Secretary's interpretation of his own regulation becomes 'of controlling weight unless it is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation'. Morgan v. Udall, 113 U.S.App.D.C. 192, 306 F.2d 799 (D.C.Cir., 1962), and cases cited therein.
This Court is of the opinion that there is a valid purpose for the regulation in issue, and that the Secretary's interpretation is not unreasonable nor arbitrary as applied to plaintiff's offer.
Plaintiff further contends that the Secretary was arbitrary in interpreting the regulations as to the description of lands. The Intervenor in its offer had stated the lands requested comprise Tract 282 and part of Tract 186, and then proceeded to describe the land by relying on a Department of Agriculture survey made after the tracts were acquired by the United States from individual owners. Plaintiff contends that this description does not comply with the regulation; and that since the Agriculture Survey was not before the Secretary, he could not take judicial notice of it, and therefore it was error for the Secretary to state that intervenor's description was 'based upon the survey.'
However, the regulation requires the description to be 'consistent with the description in the deed conveying such lands to the United States', and the Solicitor found this 'does not mean that it must be congruent or in exact conformity with (the deed), but is sufficient if it is in harmony and in substantial agreement with it.' The Solicitor also stated that failure to submit a proper map 'does not render the offer defective if the description otherwise satisfies the requirement of the regulation.'
The Court cannot say that such interpretation is unreasonable. The requirements of the regulation are for the benefit of the Secretary, in order that he might determine exactly which lands are sought, and whether the land would conflict with other lease interests. If the Secretary is satisfied with the description, then the purpose for which the regulation was promulgated has been met.
Finally, plaintiff alleges that a prior decision of the Mineral Adjudication Section should be res judicata as to the priority of the plaintiff's offer, and precluded the Secretary from entertaining the intervenor's second offer.
It is clear that the Secretary, acting through his Solicitor in this case, has authority to correct or reverse a decision by a subordinate, even where an appeal is not taken to him, especially in the field of public lands management. Boesche v. Udall, 373 U.S. 472, 83 S. Ct. 1373, 10 L. Ed. 2d 491 (1963).
In Boesche, supra, at page 483, 83 S. Ct. at page 1380, the Supreme Court stated:
'The present case is a peculiarly appropriate one for administrative determination in the first instance. At issue was simply the question whether petitioner's lease offer was defective * * *. Matters of this nature do not warrant initial submission to the judicial process. Indeed the magnitude and complexity of the leasing program conducted by the Secretary make it likely that a seriously detrimental effect on the prompt and efficient administration of both the public domain and the federal courts might well be the consequence of a shift from the Secretary to the courts of the power to cancel such defective leases.'
It is the opinion of this Court that the decision of the Secretary, interpreting his regulations and in applying them to the offers of plaintiff and intervenor to lease the oil and gas interests is neither plainly erroneous nor unreasonable, and should not be disturbed.
Accordingly, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment will be denied, and the motions of defendant and intervenor will be granted.
Counsel for defendant to submit an appropriate order.
© 1992-2004 VersusLaw Inc.