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Amoco Prod. Co. v. Southern Ute Indian Tribe

Citation: 29 ELR 21274
No. No. 98-830, 119 S. Ct. 1719/526 U.S. 865/(U.S., 06/07/1999) Rev'd.

The Court reverses the Tenth Circuit and holds that U.S. reservation of coal under the Coal Land Acts of 1909 and 1910 did not include coalbed methane (CBM) gas. Consequently, a Native American tribe having equitable title to coal in reservation lands that homesteaders settled under the 1909 and 1910 Acts does not own the CBM gas. The Court first holds that at the time the Acts were passed, the common understanding of coal would not have encompassed CBM gas. In 1909 and 1910, coal was commonly defined as a solid fuel resource, and the gas that escaped from coal was deemed separate and distinct, rather than part of the coal itself. The Court then holds that Congress intended in the Acts to reserve only the solid rock resource and not the CBM gas. CBM gas was considered a dangerous waste product that escaped from coal, and companies venting the gas made no attempt to capture or preserve it. Had Congress intended to reserve the gas rights it would have done so explicitly as it had in subsequent congressional enactments. The Court also holds that it is unlikely that Congress was concerned about any problems that might arise from the resulting split estate of coal and CBM gas. It does not appear that Congress gave consideration to the possibility that CBM gas would one day be a profitable energy source.

Justice Ginsburg dissented and would apply the canon that ambiguities in land grants are construed in favor of the sovereign. Justice Breyer took no part in the consideration of the case.

[The Tenth Circuit's decision in this litigation is published at 27 ELR 21370.]

Counsel for Petitioner
Charles L. Kaiser
Davis, Graham & Stubbs
370 17th St., Ste. 4700, Denver CO 80201
(303) 892-9400

Counsel for Respondent
Scott B. McElroy
Greene, Meyer & McElroy
1007 Pearl St., Boulder CO 80302
(303) 442-2021

With Ginsburg, J., dissenting