- Associated Press - Thursday, May 25, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A new law intended to clarify disputed ownership of minerals under a Missouri River reservoir doesn’t apply in a case scheduled before North Dakota’s Supreme Court next month, the state attorney general says.

Gov. Doug Burgum signed the measure last month that limits the state’s mineral claims under Lake Sakakawea to a smaller area than it had claimed. The legislation is estimated to cost the state nearly $187 million it already has collected in oil-drilling royalty payments that must be returned.

But Wayne Stenehjem said in court documents that the land that is the subject of the lawsuit before the high court was already part of Missouri River channel and was not “inundated” by water when Lake Sakakawea was created in the 1950s. He says that means the state owns the minerals.

The state Board of University and School Lands discussed the lawsuit and similar litigation in a closed-door meeting Thursday but took no action. Burgum is the chairman of the board.

Burgum would not comment on the pending lawsuits.

He told reporters that the bill he signed last month “has potential impacts on many cases.”

The state and federal government, land owners and oil companies all have an interest in oil that lies under Lake Sakakawea, a 180-mile-long lake created in the 1950s when the Garrison Dam was built on the Missouri River.

Drillers first tapped crude underneath the lake about a decade ago using advanced horizontal drill techniques. But the drilling technology that allows rigs to be set up far from the shoreline also led to lawsuits due to conflicting claims of ownership of the same minerals, and a slowdown of drilling there due to the uncertainty over mineral ownership.

That uncertainty spurred lawsuits, including one set to come before the state’s high court on June 12.

Joshua Swanson, an attorney representing plaintiffs in that case, said he was disappointed that the case is moving forward.

“I think everyone thought this was resolved,” he said.

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