OCTOBER TERM, 1998
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the tenth circuit
No. 98-830. Argued April 19, 1999—Decided June 7, 1999
Land patents issued to western settlers pursuant to the Coal Lands Acts of 1909 and 1910 conveyed the land and everything in it, except the "coal," which was reserved to the United States. Patented lands included reservation lands previously ceded by respondent Southern Ute Indian Tribe to the United States. In 1938, the United States restored to the Tribe, in trust, title to ceded reservation lands still owned by the Government, including the reserved coal in lands patented under the 1909 and 1910 Acts. These lands contain large quantities of coalbed methane gas (CBM gas) within the coal formations. At the time of the 1909 and 1910 Acts, such gas was considered a dangerous waste product of coal mining, but it is now considered a valuable energy source. Relying on a 1981 opinion by the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior that CBM gas was not included in the Acts' coal reservation, oil and gas companies entered into CBM gas leases with the individual landowners of some 200,000 acres of patented land in which the Tribe owns the coal. The Tribe filed suit against petitioners, the royalty owners and producers under the leases, and federal agencies and officials (respondents here), seeking, inter alia, a declaration that CBM gas is coal reserved by the 1909 and 1910 Acts. The District Court granted the defendants summary judgment, holding that the plain meaning of the term "coal" in the Acts is a solid rock substance that does not include CBM gas. In reversing, the Tenth Circuit found the term ambiguous, invoked the canon that ambiguities in land grants should be resolved in favor of the sovereign, and concluded that the coal reservation encompassed CBM gas. The Solicitor of the Interior has withdrawn the 1981 opinion, and the United States now supports the Tribe's position.
Held: The term "coal" as used in the 1909 and 1910 Acts does not encompass CBM gas. Pp. 872-880.
(a) The question here is not whether, based on what scientists know today, CBM gas is a constituent of coal, but whether Congress so regarded it in 1909 and 1910. The common understanding of coal at that
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