Harry S. Truman photo

Veto of Bill Concerning Title to Offshore Lands.

May 29, 1952

To the Senate of the United States:

I return herewith, without my approval, Senate Joint Resolution 20, entitled "Joint Resolution To confirm and establish the titles of the States to lands beneath navigable waters within State boundaries and to the natural resources within such lands and waters, and to provide for the use and control of said lands and resources".

This joint resolution deals with a matter which is of great importance to every person in the United States. I have studied it very carefully, and have taken into account the views and interests of those who support this legislation, as well as of those who are opposed to it.

I have concluded that I cannot approve this joint resolution, because it would turn over to certain States, as a free gift, very valuable lands and mineral resources of the United States as a whole--that is, of all the people of the country. I do not believe such an action would be in the national interest, and I do not see how any President could fail to oppose it.

The lands and mineral resources in question lie under the open sea off the Pacific, the Gulf, and the Atlantic coasts of our country. Contrary to what has been asserted, this resolution would have no effect whatever on the status of the lands which lie under navigable rivers, lakes, harbors, bays, sounds, and other navigable bodies of water that are inland waters. Neither would it have any effect on the tidelands--that is, the lands along the sea shore which are covered at high tide and exposed at low tide. All such lands have long been held by the courts to belong to the States or their grantees, and this resolution would make no change in the situation.

The only lands which would be affected by this resolution extend under the open ocean for some miles seaward from the low tide mark or from the mouths of harbors, sounds, and other inland waters. What this resolution would do would be to give these lands to the States which happen to border on the ocean.

It has been contended that the joint resolution merely restores to the States property which they owned prior to the 1947 decision of the Supreme Court in the case of United States v. California. This argument is entirely erroneous.

Until recent years, little or no attention was paid to the question of who owned these lands under the open sea, since they were for all practical purposes without value. But, about twenty years ago, oil began to be produced in substantial quantities from the submerged lands off the coast of California. Then, for the first time, the legal question of ownership became important and was given serious consideration.

There was uncertainty for a number of years over whether these were State or Federal lands. Even so careful and zealous a guardian of the public interest as the late Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, at first assumed that the undersea lands were owned by the States. When he subsequently made studies of the matter, however, he concluded that the United States had interests in these lands which should be determined by the courts.

Whatever may have been the opinion of various people in the past, the legal controversy has now been finally resolved in the only way such legal questions can be resolved under our Constitution--that is by the courts, in this case by the Supreme Court. It has been resolved by that Court not once but three times. First in 1947, in the case of California, then twice in 1950, in the cases of Louisiana and Texas, the Court held that the submerged lands and mineral resources underlying the open waters of the ocean off the coast of the United States are lands and resources of the United States, and that the various coastal States, as such, do not have and have never had any title to or property interest in such lands or resources. Texas, of course, before it became a State and while it was an independent republic, had whatever rights then existed in the submerged lands off its coast, but the Supreme Court ruled that any such rights were transferred to the United States under the annexation agreement when Texas entered the Union.

Consequently, the law has now been determined, and it applies uniformly to all coastal States. Lands under the open sea are not owned by the coastal States, but are lands belonging to the United States--that is, they are lands of all the people of the country.

Accordingly, the real question presented by this joint resolution is not who owns the lands in question. That question was settled by the Supreme Court. The real question this resolution raises is: should the people of the country give an asset belonging to all of them to the States which happen to border on the ocean. This resolution would do just that. Despite all the irrelevant contentions which have been made in favor of this resolution, its real purpose and its sole effect would be to give to a few States undersea lands and mineral resources which belong to the entire Nation.

I cannot agree that this would be a wise or proper way to dispose of these lands and mineral resources of the United States. Instead, I think the resources in these lands under the sea should be developed and used for the benefit of all the people of the country, including those who live in the coastal States.

I would not agree to any proposal that would deprive the people of the coastal States of anything that rightfully belongs to them. By the same token, I cannot be faithless to the duty I have to protect the rights of the people of the other States of the Union.

The resources in the lands under the marginal sea are enormously valuable. About 235 million barrels of oil have already been recovered from the submerged lands affected by this joint resolution--nearly all of it from lands off the coasts of California and Louisiana. The oil fields already discovered in these lands are estimated to hold at least 278 million more barrels of oil. Moreover, it is estimated that more than 2 1/2 billion additional barrels of oil may be discovered in the submerged lands that would be given away off the coasts of California, Texas, and Louisiana alone. In addition to oil and gas, it is altogether possible that other mineral resources of great value will be discovered and developed beneath the ocean bed.

The figures I have cited relate only to the submerged lands which are claimed to be covered by this resolution--that is, the marginal belt of land which the sponsors of the resolution say extends seaward 3 marine leagues (10 1/2 land miles) from the low-tide mark off the coast of Texas and the west coast of Florida, and 3 nautical miles (3 1/2 land miles) off all other coastal areas.

The Continental Shelf, which extends in some areas 150 miles or more off the coast of our country, contains additional amounts of oil and other minerals of huge value. One oil well, for example, has already been drilled and is producing about 22 miles off the coast of Louisiana.

While this resolution does not specifically purport to convey lands and resources of the Continental Shelf beyond a marginal belt, the resolution does open the door for the coastal States to come back and assert claims for the mineral resources of "the Continental Shelf lying seaward and outside of" this area. The intent of the coastal States in this regard has been made clear by actions of the State legislature of Louisiana, which has enacted legislation claiming to extend the State's boundary 27 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, and of the State legislature of Texas, which has enacted legislation claiming to extend that State's boundary to the outer limit of the Continental Shelf. Such an action would extend Texas' boundary as much as 130 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

I see no good reason for the Federal Government to make an outright gift, for the benefit of a few coastal States, of property interests worth billions of dollars--property interests which belong to 155 million people. The vast quantities of oil and gas in the submerged ocean lands belong to the people of all the States. They represent part of a priceless national heritage. This national wealth, like other lands owned by the United States, is held in trust for every citizen of the United States. It should be used for the welfare and security of the Nation as a whole. Its future revenues should be applied to relieve the tax burdens of the people of all the States and not of just a few States.

for these reasons, I cannot concur in donating lands under the open sea to the coastal States, as this resolution would do.

I should like to dispose of some of the arguments which have been made in support of this resolution--arguments which seem to me to be wholly fallacious.

It has been claimed that such legislation as this is necessary to protect the rights of all the States in the lands beneath their navigable inland waters. It has been argued that the decisions of the Supreme Court in the California, Louisiana, and Texas cases have somehow cast doubt on the status of lands under these inland waters. There is no truth in this at all. Nothing in these cases raises the slightest question about the ownership of lands beneath inland waters. A long and unbroken line of Supreme Court decisions, extending back for more than 100 years, holds unequivocally that the States or their grantees own the lands beneath the navigable inland waters within the State boundaries.

Long Island Sound, for example, was determined by the courts to be an inland water many years ago. So were Mobile Bay, and Mississippi Sound, and San Francisco Bay, and Puget Sound. Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, and New York and Boston Harbors, are inland waters. The Federal Government neither has nor asserts any right or interest in the lands and resources underlying these or other navigable inland waters within State boundaries. Neither does it have or assert any right or interest in the tidelands, the lands lying between the high and low water marks of the tides. All this has been settled conclusively by the courts.

If the Congress wishes to enact legislation confirming the States in the ownership of what is already theirs--that is, the lands and resources under navigable inland waters and the tidelands--I shall, of course, be glad to approve it. But such legislation is completely unnecessary, and bears no relation whatever to the question of what should be done with lands which the States do not now own--that is, the lands under the open sea.

The proponents of this legislation have also asserted that under the Supreme Court rulings the Federal Government may interfere with the rights of the States to control the taking, conservation, and development of fish, shrimp, kelp, and other marine animal or plant life. It is also asserted that the Federal Government may interfere with the rights to filled-in or reclaimed lands, or the rights relating to docks, piers, breakwaters, or other structures built into or over the ocean. I can say simply and categorically that the Executive branch of the Government has no intention whatever of undertaking any such thing. If the Congress finds any cause for apprehension in this regard, it can easily settle the matter by appropriate legislation, which I would be very happy to approve. But these assertions provide no excuse for passing legislation to give to a few States--at the expense of the people of all the others--rights they do not now have to very valuable lands and minerals beneath the open sea.

I have considered carefully the arguments that have been advanced to the general effect that--regardless of the decisions of the Supreme Court--the coastal States ought to own the lands beneath the marginal sea. These arguments have been varied and ingenious. I cannot review all of them here. Suffice it to say I have found none of these arguments to be persuasive.

The fact is that the Federal Government, and not the States, obtained the rights to these lands by the action of the Executive, beginning with a letter from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1793, when he asserted jurisdiction, on behalf of the United States as against all other nations, over the 3-mile belt of ocean seaward of the low-tide mark. Neither then nor at any other time did the Federal Government relinquish any authority over this belt. The rights to this ocean belt, in other words, are and always have been Federal rights, maintained under international law by the national government on behalf of all the people of the country.

It has been strongly urged upon me that the case of Texas differs from that of the other coastal States, and that special considerations entitle Texas to submerged lands lying off its coast. I recognize that the situation relating to Texas is unique. Texas was an independent republic for nine years before she was admitted to the Union, in 1845, "on an equal footing with the existing States". During those nine years, it had whatever rights then existed in submerged lands of the marginal sea.

Texas entered the Union pursuant to a joint resolution of annexation, enacted by the Congress. Some of the provisions of the annexation resolution are not clear in their meaning as they apply to the present question. Thus, the resolution granted to Texas "all the vacant and unappropriated lands lying within its limits", but at the same time it also required Texas to cede to the United States "all . . . ports and harbors . . . and all other property and means pertaining to the public defence."

The legal question relating to ownership of submerged lands off the coast of Texas may have been different and more difficult than the legal question with respect to California and Louisiana. But the Supreme Court decided that when Texas entered the Union on an equal footing with the other States, thereupon ceasing to be an independent nation, it transferred national external sovereignty to the United States and relinquished any claims it may have had to the lands beneath the sea.

Not only has the Supreme Court ruled upon the difficult legal question, but in enacting S.J. Res. 20 the Congress decided that all the coastal States should be treated in the same manner as Texas. In view of this, it obviously is impossible for me to consider the resolution exclusively from the standpoint of the unique situation relating to Texas.

As to those parts of the Continental Shelf that lie beyond the marginal belt that would be transferred by S.J. Res. 20, the States have no grounds for asserting claims. There can be no claim that these lands lay within the boundaries of any States at the time of their admission to the Union. Neither can there be any claim of an historical understanding that these were State lands. More important, the Nation's rights in those lands, as in the case of the marginal belt, are national rights based upon action taken by the Federal government.

In 1945, the President issued a proclamation declaring that the natural resources of the subsoil and sea bed of the Continental Shelf beneath the high seas appertain to the United States, and are subject to its jurisdiction and control. This proclamation asserts the interests of the United States in the land and resources under the high seas well beyond the 3-mile belt of territorial sea established in Jefferson's time. This jurisdiction was, of course, asserted on behalf of the United States as a whole, and not just on behalf of the coastal States.

In view of the controversy of the last fifteen years or so over the disposition of the lands underlying the marginal sea belt, and the more recent problem relating to rights in the remainder of the Continental Shelf, I should like in this message to indicate the outlines of what would appear to me to be a reasonable solution.

First, it is of great importance that the exploration of the submerged lands--both in the marginal sea belt and the rest of the Continental Shelf-for oil and gas fields should go ahead rapidly, and any fields discovered should be developed in an orderly fashion which will provide adequate recognition for the needs of national defense.

S.J. Res. 20, as originally introduced by Senators O'Mahoney and Anderson, and as reported from the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, would have filled this need on an interim basis, pending further study by the Congress, by providing for Federal leases to private parties for exploration and development of the oil and gas deposits in the undersea lands. But, as it was amended and passed, the resolution would only make possible the development under State control of the resources of the marginal belt; it makes no provision whatever for developing the resources of the rest of the Continental Shelf.

I wish to call special attention to the need for considering the national defense aspects of this matter--which the present bill disregards completely.

In recent years, we have changed from an oil-exporting to an oil-importing Nation. We are rapidly using up our known reserves of oil; we are uncertain how much remains to be found; and we face a growing dependence upon imports from other parts of the world. We need, therefore, to encourage exploration for more oil within lands subject to United States jurisdiction, and to conserve most carefully, against any emergency, a portion of our national oil reserves.

S.J. Res. 20, as it reached me, does not provide at all for the national defense interest in the oil under the marginal sea. Indeed, the latter half of the ambiguous and contradictory terms of section 6(a) of the resolution appears to bar the United States from exercising any control, for national defense purposes or otherwise, over the natural resources under the sea. While section 6(b) gives the Government, in time of war, the right of first refusal to purchase oil, and the right to acquire land through condemnation proceedings, these provisions avoid completely the main problem, which is to make sure, before any war comes, that our oil resources are not dissipated.

In contrast to these provisions, S.J. Res. 20, as originally introduced by Senators O'Mahoney and Anderson, provided in section 7(a) that the President could, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any unleased lands of the Continental Shelf and reserve them in the interest of national security. In passing the resolution now before me, however, the Congress omitted entirely this or any other similar provision. It is not too much to say that in passing this legislation the Congress proposes to surrender priceless opportunities for conservation and other safeguards necessary for national security. I regard this as extremely unfortunate, and it is for this reason especially that the Department of Defense has strongly urged me to withhold approval from S.J. Res. 20.

I urge the Congress to enact, in place of the resolution before me, legislation which will provide for renewed exploration and prudent developments of the oil and gas fields under the open sea, on a basis that will adequately protect the national defense interests of the Nation.

Second, the Congress should provide for the disposition of the revenues obtained from oil and gas leases on the undersea lands. S.J. Res. 20, as introduced by Senators O'Mahoney and Anderson, would have granted the adjacent coastal States 37 1/2 percent of the revenues from submerged lands of the marginal sea. I would have no objection to such a provision, which is similar to existing provisions under which the States receive 37½ percent of the revenues from the Federal Government's oil-producing public lands within their borders.

Another suggestion, which was offered by Senator Hill on behalf of himself and 18 other Senators, was that the revenues from the undersea lands, other than the portion to be paid to the adjacent coastal States under the O'Mahoney-Anderson resolution, should be used to aid education throughout the Nation. When you consider how much good such a provision would do for school children throughout the Nation, it gives particular emphasis to the necessity for preserving these great assets for the benefit of all the people of the country rather than giving them to a few of the States.

Third, I believe any legislation dealing with the undersea lands should protect the equitable interests of those now holding state-issued leases on those lands. The Government certainly should not impair bona fide investments which have been made in the undersea lands, and the legislation should make this clear. Here again, S.J. Res. 20, as introduced by Senators O'Mahoney and Anderson, provided a sensible approach.

But unfortunately, S.J. Res. 20 was converted on the floor of the Senate into legislation which makes a free gift of immensely valuable resources, which belong to the entire Nation, to the States which happen to be located nearest to them. For the reasons stated above, I find neither wisdom nor necessity in such a course, and I am compelled to return the joint resolution without my approval.


Harry S Truman, Veto of Bill Concerning Title to Offshore Lands. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/230799

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