Two Tideland Oil bills are facing Congress. Decision on these bills will establish ownership and control of what promises to be one of the nation's most important mineral areas. Wrangling over the disposition of these new oil fields has become a great political struggle with the states in Congress, backed by monstor lobbies, lined up against President Truman and the administration. The Supreme Court seems to favor the administration, but the tricky wording of its decision establishing a doctrine of "paramount rights" has left its stand in doubt. The struggle has crossed party lines with many Democrats, particularly those from the oil states, going against the administration.
Arguments presented in the dispute have involved numerous issues that are related to the tideland problem, but the basic question of ownership of the land has brought out two different approaches.
Those favoring the bill for federal ownership concentrate their views on the Supreme Court decision. They say that since the states never owned the land the states have no rights to be considered whatever. Since the United States has "paramount rights and full dominion" in this land, why should the government give the land away? How can the federal government, they argue, give land in which all the states have an interest to three states? This, they say, would be a quitclaim, and they see no reason for it.
On the other side of the fence, the supporters of the bill giving ownership of the tideland oil deposits to the states look at the practical situation in the tidelands today and try to ignore the Court decision as much as possible. They maintain that in practice the states have owned this land, and the federal bill would take it away from them. Great development and organization of the new oil fields have already taken place under state ownership. Such a change as is proposed by the administration would disrupt the whole system and delay the development of the area until a new federal agency could be organized with an experienced personnel. The shift in ownership would also cause a tremendous number of legal disputes. This argument adds up to the statement that a removal of tideland ownership from the states would involve a great loss to the economy as a whole and a delay in the development of important oil resources. Since there is little complaint with the state administration, there is no gain to justify the cost of transfer.
Other issues used as arguments by both sides are conservation, national defense, states rights, and land grab.
Conservation was one of the first issues to enter the field. Conservation in oil has become a standard part of all oil legislation, and all states have their conservation laws. Federal conservation, however, has always been more effective than state, and Harold Ickes charges that oil lobbies in some states, particularly California, have reduced conservation to an ineffective farce. This consideration makes federal ownership necessary to maintain an important oil reserve. A Representative from Texas, however, says that there is precedent for federal regulation of state owned oil fields. Although most oil conservation is now in the hands of the states, perhaps the doctrine of paramount rights would allow the federal government to regulate the conservation of the oil while the states would maintain their ownership. States and oil interests, however, fear what might be done by the federal government in the name of conservation.
Both sides have used national defense. Coupled with conservation, the national defense argument says that it would be impossible to fight another war on our present developed oil resources. The government should, therefore, set off oil fields for a sufficient oil reserve. The other argument says that there is a tremendous difference between oil under the ground and oil ready for use. This difference lies in exploration of oil deposits and actual drilling to determine where the producing wells are. National defense, therefore, requires the complete development of this vast, unknown oil area as soon as possible.
States rights has loomed as an important issue as a result of the Supreme Court's decision, and its cry has rallied many non-oil states to an attack on the administration. One of the most vociferous lobbies in this case is an association of state attorneys general screaming states rights. They argue that if the doctrine of federal "paramount rights" can lead to the government taking over ownership of what was considered state property, then carried to its logical conclusion paramount rights might be used to seize any state property. The federal government, however, denies any right to anything except the marginal sea area.
While the states are claiming the federal government is trying to grab its land, other people are saying that state ownership is merely a land grab by big business. This is not true, for the business arrangements in the federal bill are identical with those of the states. Oil rights to an area of land are leased to the highest bidder, bids later being made public; and when oil is struck, the owner of the land receives a royalty, usually one-eighth. The preference of business for state control stems from a fear of a disruption of the industry in a transition period and a fear of political juggling of oil on the national seene. Considering the huge sums that have been invested in oil gambling, it is not surprising that business favors the conditions under which they made the gamble to an unknown future.
These are the leading arguments in the debate. Because of an amazingly uninformed and usually prejudiced public opinion, final decision will depend on which side can muster the most political strength.