I am not a lawyer, so cannot provide legal commentary on the merits of the following:
Saying that the federal Treasury is at risk of giving up nearly $19 billion — and maybe more — in revenues, the Obama Administration has asked the Supreme Court to clarify the government’s power to collect royalties from oil and gas companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. In a petition filed Monday (U.S. Department of Interior v. Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas, docket 09-54), the government says companies drilling on nearly 100 leases stand to get “huge and unjustified windfalls” under a federal appeals court decision issued in January.
Interestingly, the word “windfalls” is used elsewhere in the petition, tending to show that the word was used with purpose (rather than inadvertently).
Let’s take a little trip down etymology lane and look at the origin of the word, shall we? A long time ago, when there wasn’t very much private ownership of what we consider today to be “real” property (such as land and the stuff on and in it) folks in places like England were not permitted to cut down trees from the King’s forest to keep themselves warm in the sometimes frosty winters. Instead, they could have the dead limbs, etc which were on the ground. Thus it was that after a storm, the people would go into the forest to see if the winds had knocked down any trees, thereby giving them more firewood at once than they might otherwise be able to pick up by simply getting a stick here and a stick there.
So “windfall” meant “a tree felled by the wind” or, for similar reasons, “fruit knocked down by the wind.” Later on it came to mean something which was provided by fortune or chance and was not merited by the recipient. That would make an “unjustified windfall” an oxymoron (or very close to one) by my understanding.
I believe that those who filed the petition meant to say something like “money these wealthy oil companies do not need as much the US government needs it.” However, that probably didn’t sound politic enough for a legal petition, hence the introduction of windfalls.