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State of N.D. argues lawsuit over mineral law should be dismissed

BISMARCK — The state of North Dakota is asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges a new law related to ownership of oil and gas minerals under Lake Sakakawea.

The state, the Board of University and School Lands, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, Gov. Doug Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem recently filed a joint response to the lawsuit that claims North Dakota owns all of the minerals under Lake Sakakawea and argues that recently enacted legislation is unconstitutional.

Attorneys for the state argue the case should be dismissed because it does not name all parties with a stake in oil and gas minerals that would be affected by the lawsuit.

The Industrial Commission estimates the litigation would affect 850 working interest owners and 12,600 royalty interest owners, according to an affidavit from Director of Mineral Resources Lynn Helms.

The state argues the lawsuit should either be dismissed, or the plaintiffs should file an amended complaint that names all of the necessary parties.

In addition, attorneys for the state argue the U.S. government is a mineral owner and should be a party to the lawsuit, but a state district court lacks the proper jurisdiction.

The lawsuit, filed in Cass County District Court by Democratic Rep. Marvin Nelson and others, argues the legislation known as Senate Bill 2134 gives away the perpetual ownership of minerals under Lake Sakakawea, worth an estimated $1.76 billion with the exact value to be proven at trial.

Nelson, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2016, has said a dispute over ownership of minerals under Lake Sakakawea should be decided by the courts, not legislators.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state are Paul Sorum, of Fargo, a Republican candidate for governor in 2016, his running mate Michael Coachman, of Larimore, as well as Charles Tuttle, of Minot, and Lisa Omlid, of Bismarck.

The lawsuit seeks to stop a survey that is underway to review the historical channel of the Missouri River as it existed before the Garrison Dam, which created Lake Sakakawea.

Attorneys for the state argue that halting the survey would affect parties in other lawsuits that are currently on hold in anticipation of the survey results.

The Industrial Commission is represented by a Grand Forks law firm while the state, the Land Board, Burgum and Stenehjem are represented by the Attorney General's Office.

However, the parties filed a joint legal response, signed by attorney Daniel Gaustad, of Grand Forks, and Matthew Sagsveen, solicitor general with the Attorney General's Office.

The state's legal response includes an exhibit that is written testimony from an attorney representing the North Dakota Petroleum Council who advocated for Senate Bill 2134.

A hearing is scheduled in the case on March 27 before East Central Judicial District Judge John Irby.