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Judge prohibits ND from forfeiting Lake Sakakawea oil royalties to private ownership

Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, and Paul Sorum, a former North Dakota gubernatorial candidate, held a news conference Monday, March 19, in Fargo to discuss a lawsuit they filed in Cass County District Court. The suit challenges the constitutionality of a statute that they argue gives away nearly $2 billion of the state's mineral rights and royalties under Lake Sakakawea. Kim Hyatt / Forum News Service

FARGO — A lawsuit concerning North Dakota's mineral royalties and rights reached a new decision Monday, May 21, when a judge ordered royalties totaling more than $200 million be kept by the state.

The lawsuit was filed in January by state Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, former gubernatorial candidate Paul Sorum, and others against the state of North Dakota. They are challenging the constitutionality of legislative Bill 2134, which the plaintiffs argue transfers nearly $1.76 billion in state mineral rights and another estimated $205 million in royalties to private ownership.

Monday's injunction ordered by Judge John Irby Monday prohibits the state from forfeiting those oil royalties, rents and bonus payments.

"This is a huge win," said Terrance Moore, the plaintiffs' lawyer.

The minerals of interest lie under Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir created when the Garrison Dam was built 60 years ago across the Missouri River. The dam changed the river's high water mark and the lawsuit claims the state statute gives away the rights to 108,000 acres of minerals under the lake's high water mark.

Opponents of the lawsuit say the minerals have always belonged to private property owners and the lawsuit is an infringement upon their rights.

The state Legislature ordered a review of the Missouri River's high water mark as it was before the dam was built. The review, completed by consultant Wenck Associates, shows the state owns about 10,000 more acres than the previously established 16,600 acres determined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A 2009 survey used by the Department of Trust Lands shows North Dakota owns an additional estimated 15,000 acres. The $205 million in royalties the lawsuit claims the statute gives away is based off this difference in the Corps and 2009 surveys.

A public hearing on the Wenck report, which is public at https://www.dmr.nd.gov/, is set for June 26 in Bismarck.

The Wenck report can be adopted into the statute but it will not have any effect until the lawsuit is settled, Moore said.

Phone messages left for Attorney Matthew Sagsveen, who represents the state in the lawsuit, were not returned on Monday.

Moore said the lawsuit needs to go through a few more rounds at the state district court level before it proceeds to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

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