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Land Board: State not trying to claim Lake Sakakawea minerals

BISMARCK -- The Board of University and School Lands said Tuesday, Oct. 18, the state is not trying to claim oil and gas minerals under Lake Sakakawea as some mineral owners had feared based on the state's response to recent lawsuits.

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A drilling rig is pictured near Lake Sakakawea near New Town, N.D., on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

BISMARCK - The Board of University and School Lands said Tuesday, Oct. 18, the state is not trying to claim oil and gas minerals under Lake Sakakawea as some mineral owners had feared based on the state's response to recent lawsuits.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, chairman of the Land Board, recommended Tuesday that members pass a motion clarifying that the board has not changed its position on mineral ownership under the Missouri River.

The Land Board has traditionally leased minerals under the Missouri River but not minerals under Lake Sakakawea, created by the Garrison Dam.

However, attorneys representing the state have argued in recent lawsuits that there is no distinction between the historical channel of the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea, leading some mineral owners and oil industry representatives to question whether the state is trying to claim minerals under the lake.

A motion passed unanimously Tuesday states that the Land Board has not changed its leasing practices under the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea and board members would not do so unless directed by the Legislature.

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The lawsuits, including William S. Wilkinson v. the Board of University and School Lands, involve disputes over mineral ownership.

"There's no question that because of the Wilkinson case and other cases and the way they are evolving, that some people are interpreting those cases to mean that we'll be doing things differently in the future," Dalrymple said. "I don't think that's the case and I think we need to clear that up right now."

State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt said some confusion could stem from the board's action in November 2015 to ask the state engineer for an estimate to survey the ordinary high water mark from the Highway 23 bridge to the Highway 85 bridge.

"I think there could have been an interpretation of that that said we were going in a different direction when we were just continuing to ask additional questions," Schmidt said.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said there was a misconception about what the board was doing by responding to lawsuits.

"We haven't changed anything and we haven't instituted any of these lawsuits," Jaeger said. "We're just in a position where we have to respond to them."

The Land Board consists of the governor, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction, state treasurer and the attorney general. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem was absent from the meeting.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said after the meeting that the Land Board provided the clarity that the industry and mineral owners were looking for.

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"Clearly we hope that the attorneys on behalf of the Land Board do their due diligence on those lawsuits but not through those lawsuits seek to expand their ownership of the minerals," Ness said. "That's what the mineral interests and others were hoping to be clarified."

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