ND Senate OKs Bill To Define Lakebed Mineral Ownership

BISMARCK — A bill to clarify mineral ownership under Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River moved forward Wednesday, Feb. 8, with a 37-9 vote in the North Dakota Senate.

Senate Bill 2134 clarifies that North Dakota only claims ownership of minerals under the original channel of the Missouri River and not under Lake Sakakawea, created by the construction of the Garrison Dam.

The bill uses a 1950s-era survey to define the Missouri River channel, rather than a 2009 survey the state conducted to define the ordinary high water mark of the river.

The differences between the two surveys are substantial and would require the state to return or forfeit oil royalties and bonus and rent payments.

The impact of the bill, which was amended to include areas west of the U.S. Highway 85 bridge in Williston, is estimated to be more than $286 million in 2017-19 and $35 million for 2019-2021.

Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the bill will provide certainty for oil and gas leasing and return mineral acres to the rightful private owners.

The bill was supported by many private mineral owners who have been involved in costly litigation over mineral ownership disputes and oil industry representatives who say that uncertainty over mineral ownership will deter development.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, spoke in opposition to the bill, in part because it would require the Board of University and School Lands to treat that area differently than other areas of the state.

“Leasing practices by the Land Board should be consistent, no matter how valuable or invaluable the minerals are or end up being,” she said.

Oban advocated for allowing the courts to resolve disputes over mineral ownership.

“This is an issue getting worked out, slowly but surely, without us getting involved,” Oban said.

Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, the primary sponsor of the bill, said disputes over state versus federal ownership of minerals have dragged on for years.

“Litigation has been ongoing for close to a decade and we are no loser to resolution today than we were 10 years ago,” Armstrong said.

The bill was amended to exclude the Fort Berthold and Standing Rock Sioux reservations.

The proposal now moves over to the House for consideration.

A drilling rig is pictured near Lake Sakakawea near New Town, N.D., on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. Some fear that uncertainty about who owns the minerals under the lake will deter oil development in the area. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service