Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act

What Is the Outer Continental Shelf?

In August 1954, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) was created to govern activity related to the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). According to the OCSLA, "The term 'outer Continental Shelf' means submerged lands lying seaward and outside of the area of lands beneath navigable waters…of which the subsoil and seabed appertain to the United States and are subject to its jurisdiction..."

43 USC § 1301 defines "lands beneath navigable waters" as:

  • Lands within a state's boundary covered by nontidal water, which is navigable under U.S. law;
  • Lands permanently or periodically covered by tidal waters up to the mean high tide and up to three geographical miles distance from the state's coastline; or
  • Filled in, made, or reclaimed lands that were previously beneath navigable waters.

The Outer Continental Shelf is submerged land outside of state coastal waters but still within U.S. jurisdiction. Title 43, Chapter 29 of the U.S. Code divides the OCS into four main regions: Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, Pacific, and Alaska.

History of the OCSLA

By the middle of the 20th century, with the country transitioning away from a wartime economy, demand for oil and gas skyrocketed. Offshore exploration took off, and by 1949, there were 44+ exploratory wells in production in the Gulf of Mexico. Within the next decade, oil production became America's second-largest source of revenue.

Eventually, in 1953, the U.S. Submerged Lands Act was passed, under which the federal government controlled submerged land three geographical miles away from the coastline; exceptions were made for coasts along the Gulf of Mexico, where state control was extended for nine nautical miles. In 1954, the government passed the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which defined federal jurisdiction over the OCS; the Secretary of the Interior was also granted the ability to lease lands under federal control for mineral development. Later, the Secretary of the Interior designated the Minerals Management Service (MMS) to be the agency responsible for leasing the OCS and supervising activity following the lease. The MMS later became the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

How the OCSLA Affects Offshore Workers

Section 1333(b) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act addresses issues pertaining to employees disabled or killed while working on the OCS in operations for the exploration, development, removal, or transportation by pipeline of natural resources. 

Under this section, employees can be paid compensation under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA). In order to qualify for coverage under this OSCLA extension of the LHWCA, the injured or deceased offshore employee cannot be a vessel master or crew member of any vessel or an officer or employee of the U.S.

Laws That Apply to Workers Injured on the OCS

Maritime workers on the OCS receive protection under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. This federal legislation grants them rights to medical care and potential financial compensation if injured on the job. Nonetheless, securing these benefits can be challenging, as many valid claims face denials. It's essential for injured workers to consult with a seasoned offshore injury attorney.

Under the OCSLA, when an injury occurs on an OCS site, the personal injury laws of the nearest adjoining state apply, including that state's statute of limitations. For instance, if the adjacent state is Louisiana, the OCSLA claim is subject to a one-year statute of limitations. While some incidents involving "traditional maritime activity" might be governed by the general maritime law's three-year statute of limitations, it's vital to have a maritime attorney assess the specific circumstances of your case to determine the applicable laws.

Remedies Under the OCSLA

Under the OCSLA, workers who are employed on offshore platforms for the purpose of exploring and developing natural resources along the Outer Continental Shelf are given protection under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act. Workers who are injured while working aboard offshore platforms on the OCS may also be entitled to recover benefits under state workers' compensation programs, depending on the state where they live.

OCSLA provides that the injured worker shall receive benefits identical to those found under the LHWCA, and the payment of all medical expenses associated with the injury. If the worker is injured or killed at the fault of a third party, a claim for damages is also available as an OCSLA "third-party action." In a third-party case, an injured worker's damages include pain and suffering, lost wages, cost of medical treatment, and more.

2012 Supreme Court Ruling

In January 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the OCSLA extends coverage to workers so long as they can establish a substantial nexus between their injury and the OCS extractive operations of his or her employer. The historic ruling dealt with the case of Juan Valladolid, who worked on an offshore drilling platform but was killed at an onshore oil processing facility. His employer argued that he should have sought relief under state workers' compensation law since the incident occurred on dry land. The court ruled that OCSLA can be applied to anyone who is injured or killed as a result of OCS operations, regardless of location.

According to Justice Thomas:

"We are confident that ALJs and courts will be able to determine whether an injured employee has established a significant causal link between the injury he suffered and his employer's on-OCS extractive operations. Although we expect that employees injured while performing tasks on the OCS will regularly satisfy the test, whether an employee injured while performing an off-OCS task qualifies…is a question that will depend on the individual circumstances of each case."

Talk to an Experienced Lawyer Today

For workers who are injured while working on the Outer Continental Shelf, one of the largest complications is determining whether better benefits can be procured under state or federal law. At Arnold & Itkin, our maritime injury lawyers are proven in trial and proud of taking a detailed team approach. We are known as the nation’s leader in maritime law, and we have recovered more than $20 billion for our clients—securing the compensation that has helped them find justice and rebuild after the worst accidents and injuries.

Were you injured in an accident linked to OCS activity? Are you unsure about whether or not the OCSLA applies to you? Contact Arnold & Itkin for a free, confidential review of your case.

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