views updated


TIDELANDS, lands lying under the sea beyond the low-water limit of the tide but considered within the territorial waters of a nation. The U.S. Constitution does not specify whether ownership of these lands rests with the federal government or with individual states. Perhaps because little commercial value was attached to tidelands, ownership was never firmly established but the states generally proceeded as if they were the owners.

The value of tidelands increased when it became known that vast oil and natural gas deposits lay within their limits and that modern technology made retrieval of these minerals commercially profitable. The first offshore oil well began production in 1938 in shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico one mile off the Louisiana coast; in 1947, a second well began to operate off the coast of Terrebonne Parish, also in Louisiana. In that same year, the Supreme Court ruled, in United States v. California, that the federal government and not the states owned the tidelands. The decision meant the loss of untold millions of dollars in taxes and leasing fees by the states. The states whose tidelands were suspected of containing minerals objected strongly to the decision.

The issue became important in the 1952 presidential campaign. The Republican candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower, pledged legislation that would restore the tidelands to the states. Eisenhower won the election, and, in 1953, Congress passed two acts that fulfilled his campaign promise. The Submerged Lands Act extended state ownership to three miles from their actual coastline—except for Florida and Texas, which received ownership of the tidelands to within 10.5 miles of their coastlines. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act gave the United States paramount rights from the point where state ownership leaves off to the point where international waters begin.

The 1953 acts did not end all controversy, however. The Submerged Lands Act, in particular, was so badly drawn up that state taxes and leasing fees had to be put in escrow pending final resolution of the numerous lawsuits that emerged. The Supreme Court finally decided the issue on 31 May 1960 when it ruled that Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana owned the rights to the offshore lands for a distance of 3.5 miles, and Texas and Florida owned rights to tidelands within three leagues, or approximately 10.5 miles, from their coastline boundaries (United States v. States of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida). In the case of Texas, the claim to special boundary limits had been recognized by Congress in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, which ended the Mexican-American War. The ruling for Florida was based on congressional approval of Florida's claims when the state reentered the Union after the Civil War.

Although the other Gulf states objected to what they considered preferential treatment for Florida and Texas, no new legislation resulted. In 1963, the U.S. Justice Department settled the last of the tidelands controversies by ruling that the 1953 act gave control to the states of islands near the shore that were created after the states had been admitted to the Union.


Bartly, Ernest R. The Tidelands Oil Controversy: A Legal and Historical Analysis. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1953.

Galloway, Thomas D., ed. The Newest Federalism: A New Framework for Coastal Issues. Wakefield, R.I.: Times Press, 1982.

Marshall, Hubert R., and Betty Zisk. The Federal-State Struggle for Offshore Oil. Indianapolis, Ind.: Published for the Inter-university Case Program by Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

Thomas RobsonHay/c. w.

See alsoConstitution of the United States ; Guadalupe Hidalgo, Treaty of ; Natural Gas Industry ; Territorial Sea .