ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

With more than $100M in oil money at stake, North Dakota seeks to join lawsuit to decide who owns riverbed

The claim applies to the historical bed of the Missouri River — the river as it was before construction of Garrison Dam created Lake Sakakawea in the 1950s — not “the entirety of the bed of Lake Sakakawea,” the statement said.

Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara 1851 treaty map
This map shows the land of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara as recognized by an 1851 treaty. The borders of the Fort Berthold Reservation later were substantially reduced. The tribes are headquartered in New Town, N.D. Special to The Forum
We are part of The Trust Project.

FARGO — The state of North Dakota is seeking to intervene in a lawsuit to determine ownership of the bed of the historic Missouri River flowing inside the boundaries of the Fort Berthold Reservation.

At stake in the legal dispute is who has legal rights to oil and gas revenues worth “well over a hundred million dollars” — the state of North Dakota or the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, which occupies Fort Berthold Reservation.

The tribes filed the lawsuit in 2020 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeking to establish that they are the rightful owner of the riverbed and the mineral wealth beneath it. The legal move came after the Trump administration, at the urging of the state of North Dakota, reversed decades of administrative decisions and concluded that the state was the owner.

The solicitor for the Department of the Interior in the Biden administration reversed the Trump administration's decision, however, restoring the government’s long-held position that the riverbed and minerals beneath it were held in trust by the U.S. government for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

The state of North Dakota filed its motion to intervene in the lawsuit on Friday, April 29.

ADVERTISEMENT

“The State has never relinquished its claim to the historical riverbed, which it acquired at statehood in 1889 under the equal footing doctrine, which provides that a state entering the Union retains title to the beds of navigable rivers and lakes within the state, unless Congress has expressly designated otherwise,” the office of Attorney General Drew Wrigley said in a statement.

File Photo: Flares and lights from oil wells dot the horizon on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, just over the Missouri River from New Town, North Dakota November 1, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen/File Photo
Flares and lights from oil wells dot the horizon on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, just over the Missouri River from New Town, North Dakota November 1, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen/File Photo

The claim applies to the historical bed of the Missouri River — the river as it was before construction of the Garrison Dam created Lake Sakakawea in the 1950s — not “the entirety of the bed of Lake Sakakawea,” the statement said.

By the state’s estimate, the area of the land disputed in the lawsuit includes about 255 oil and gas wells, with mineral leases covering about 18,523 acres. Through horizontal drilling, wells on land bordering Lake Sakakawea can extend far beneath the lake.

All of the state leases require a royalty be paid on oil and gas production on the leased acres.

“Because of the title dispute with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation over title to the riverbed, royalty payments to which the Land Board is entitled under the state leases have not been paid pending resolution of the dispute,” the state said in a court filing.

In making its case for intervening in the lawsuit, which would make it a part of the case, the state said its “sovereign interests” were at stake, along with royalties estimated in August 2020 to exceed $116 million.

Early last month, on April 4, the Department of the Interior, a defendant in the tribes’ lawsuit, filed notice in the case that it had recorded title to the tribes for 123 tracts of land at issue in the dispute, action that apparently hadn’t been taken before.

Mark Fox, chairman of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, said the state’s motion to intervene in the lawsuit was “not unexpected."

ADVERTISEMENT

“The MHA nation intends to oppose North Dakota’s motion to intervene because they have no legitimate claim to the MHA Nation’s riverbed minerals, which are held in trust by the United States for the MHA Nation’s benefit,” he said.

In a separate lawsuit, filed with the U.S. Court of Claims, the tribes are seeking to force the Department of the Interior to make an accounting of the revenues the tribes are entitled to from the oil and gas beneath the riverbed — and to pay money the tribes are owed.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
What to read next
Attorney Kiara Kraus-Parr argued that Chad Isaak was not present during parts of jury selection for his trial, which would violate his right to question potential jurors. She also claimed the court wrongfully held pretrial conferences off the record and sealed documents that should have been public.
The programs in North Dakota and Minnesota, funded by the U.S. Treasury, are meant to help with mortgage and other homeownership costs that people struggled to pay during the pandemic.
Overnight on July 4 and early on July 5, Cavalier County emergency services responded to a severe injury, an ambulance hitting a deer, an unresponsive man and a grocery store burglary.
Authorities identified the 6-year-old who died during the Fourth of July event preparations as Mabel Askay of Ventura, California.