Judge sides with family in Lake Sakakawea mineral dispute

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A judge has reversed course and sided with a family and not the state of North Dakota over oil and gas mineral rights under a Missouri River reservoir.
Northwest District Judge Paul Jacobson issued the decision late last week after the state Supreme Court reversed his initial ruling and sent the case back for further consideration.
The lawsuit, filed in 2012, centers around who owns the mineral interest under land that the federal government acquired from J.T. and Evelyn Wilkinson in 1958 as part of the Garrison Dam project that created Lake Sakakawea.
The plaintiffs, who are descendants of the Wilkinsons, maintain that the family retained the mineral rights and that it was unconstitutional for the state to take them.
The state Board of University and School Lands, which manages state-owned minerals for the benefit of state schools, has disputed their ownership. It leased some of the minerals that are now being contested. The board is named as a defendant in the suit along with several oil companies.
Joshua Swanson, an attorney representing the family, said the decision could impact hundreds of mineral owners with interests under Lake Sakakawea.
“You have a decade of production they haven’t been paid on, and there’s a lot of oil and gas wells out there,” Swanson told the Bismarck Tribune. “The total dollar amount for my clients and other mineral owners is significant.”
Swanson estimates the family is owed over $1 million in oil and gas royalties. He said the land board and Statoil, which has a lease with the state, will now have to sort out how to pay the family.
Land Commissioner Jodi Smith said the land board’s attorney is reviewing the ruling.
Statoil, a Norway-based oil producer, operates in the Bakken and now goes by the name Equinor. The company declined to comment, citing the potential for an appeal.