United States v. Midwest Oil Co.
236 U.S. 459 (1915)

  • Under the Oil Placer Act of 1897 (29 Stat. 526), any person could go onto Federal lands and search for oil. If they found some, they could apply for a patent (aka "stake a claim") and extract as much oil as they wanted for free.
    • This was similar to the Mining Law of 1872.
  • By 1909, the Dept of Interior (DOI) realized that oil was a very valuable fuel and that there was a limited supply. Based on their predictions, all of the oil on the west coast would soon be in private hands, leaving none left for the US Navy.
    • This could mean that the US, which owned the oil in the first place, would be giving it away to private oil companies and then have to buy it back at great cost. That seemed silly.
  • President Taft issued an executive order temporarily withdrawing a large number of parcels of Federal land from oil or mineral prospecting.
    • The idea was to keep them safe until Congress could act and change the law.
  • Midwest did some prospecting on a withdrawn parcel of land in Wyoming, found some oil, and staked a claim.
  • The Federal government sued to get the land back and to recover the oil Midwest had extracted.
    • Midwest argued that the President did not have the authority to unilaterally suspend a Statute. Congress had explicitly allowed people to stake oil claims, and only Congress could rescind that permission.
    • The Federal government argued that the President had the authority under Article II 1 of the US Constitution to withdraw public land from entry by private parties.
  • The US Supreme Court found the President's actions to be constitutional.
    • The US Supreme Court noted that in the past, the President had often withdrawn public land that would otherwise have been open to staking oil or mineral claims without needing Congressional approval.
      • For military bases, Indian reservations and bird sanctuaries.
      • The Court didn't seem to notice that withdrawals for those purposes were not directly in contravention of a Statute like it was in this case.
    • The Court found that this was a long-standing practice, and Congress never seemed to have a problem with it, so it should be presumed to be Constitutional.
      • The Court looked to Grisar v. McDowell (6 Wall. 381 (1867)), which held that the President has the inherent right to reserve from sale and set apart for public uses parcels of land belonging to the US.
      • The Court assumed there was an implicit delegation by Congress to the President.
    • Midwest argued that there was a difference between a reservation and a withdrawal, but the Court did not find the difference to be important.
      • Midwest argued that even if it is ok to reserve some land for a specific purpose (such ad building a military base), that didn't make it ok to withdraw the land for no other reason that to just stop other people from using it.
  • In a dissent it was argued that the Property Clause (Article IV, 3, cl. 2) authorized Congress (not the President) to dispose of public lands. All of the previous withdrawals (like the military bases and Indian reservations) were for purposes Congress had already declared as being the sort of thing public lands could be used for. In this case, Congress had never authorized withdrawing public lands for conservation purposes, so the President was acting outside of any Congressional authority that might have been implicitly delegated to him.
  • Much later, in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) Congress explicitly repealed the President's implicit authority to make withdrawals.
    • Interestingly, FLPMA (43 U.S.C. 1714) actually mentions this US Supreme Court decision. The text of the Statute says:
      • "Effective on and after the date of approval of this Act, the implied authority of the President to make withdrawals and reservations resulting from the acquiescence of Congress (U.S. v. Midwest Oil Co., 236 U.S. 459)...is repealed."