Audio: Attorney for Mineral Rights Owners Calls State Land Grab “Appalling”


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

Last week, before the holiday weekend, I was joined on air by Josh Swanson, an attorney with the Vogel Law Firm.

Swanson is representing the Wilkinson family in a lawsuit against the State of North Dakota. Specifically the Board of University and School Lands which manages the State of North Dakota’s mineral rights on behalf of the taxpayers and has as its member, among other statewide elected officials, Governor Doug Burgum.

The Board picked a fight with mineral rights owners by declaring that all mineral rights under Lake Sakakawea belong to the state. This is a departure from historical practice when those rights stayed with the private property owners who held the land flooded by the lake when the Missouri River was dammed.

The surface rights for that land was bought by the federal government all those decades ago, but the private property owners retained their mineral rights.

The Legislature passed a bill earlier this year aimed at stopping the state from asserting rights to other people’s property, but so far the state’s lawyers are arguing that law doesn’t apply to that case..

It’s appalling to me,” Swanson told me of that situation. He said it’s difficult to discern which state leaders are even behind the push to claim these minerals. He said when asked where this policy is originating everyone is “passing the buck.”

But Swanson sees money as the motivation. “This wasn’t an issue until horizontal drilling took off,” he said.

SAB readers know that horizontal drilling was a key to spurring the Bakken oil boom of the recent past. It made it possible to drill straight down and then, as the term suggests, drill horizontally to access minerals previously unreachable. Like those under a lake.

It seems, person Swanson, that the State of North Dakota wasn’t all that interested in the mineral rights under our state’s biggest lake until technology made those minerals accessible and valuable.

I think Swanson’s right. It’s greed, and it’s wrong, and some state leader needs to step in and lead on this issue.

Here’s the audio:

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