Shell Oil Co. v. Iowa Dept. of Revenue

488 U. S. 19

November 8, 1988

Shell extracted much of its oil from the outer continental shelf, which is all the land beneath the first three miles of coastal waters. Iowa imposed an income tax on Shell for the business it did in Iowa, but Shell contended that it was partially immune from the tax due to the oil it sold there from the continental shelf. Shell said that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) exempted all oil and gas extracted from state taxation laws.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Iowa’s tax was not preempted by OCSLA. Marshall said that when the text of OCSLA is carefully parsed, it only bans taxation by states adjacent to the continental shelf itself. Marshall showed that this was the correct interpretation through recourse to legislative history. While a state like California could not tax the business activity of extracting oil just off its coast, all states remained free to tax the refined oil and gas that was eventually sold within state lines. Thus, Iowa’s income tax on all the oil and gas sold by Shell within the state was just fine.

While this ruling was pretty trivial, the day it was announced was momentous. That evening, Bush slaughtered Dukakis in the Electoral College. Reportedly, Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun watched stonily as the election results rolled in. They had all stubbornly stayed on the Court throughout the eight Reagan years, but now they faced either four or eight years from the Bush-Quayle team. The future of the liberal bloc looked grim indeed.

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