Drilling is expected to resume Thursday at a controversial oil site near Lake Sakakawea after a federal judge in Bismarck ordered this week that work could continue, at least temporarily.
Slawson Exploration, which is drilling multiple wells from a location near the Van Hook recreation area and boat ramp near New Town, recently had to halt operations after the federal government ordered drilling to stop.
Work was suspended by the Interior Board of Land Appeals while the board considers an appeal from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, which argues the wells should be farther away from the lake under tribal policy.
Slawson, which earlier this month began drilling the first wells from what will eventually be an 11-well pad, challenged that order in U.S. District Court and requested that work be allowed to continue while the appeal is being considered.
On Tuesday, Judge Daniel Hovland granted Slawson’s request to continue drilling, at least until a hearing can be held on Aug. 29.
Eric Sundberg, environmental and regulatory manager for Slawson, said drilling is expected to resume Thursday at the location, known as the Torpedo Federal pad.
The underlying dispute relates to whether tribal law can be applied to these wells, which are within the boundaries of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Slawson argues tribal policies don’t apply to the Torpedo Federal wells because they are on private land and the company is developing non-Indian oil and gas minerals underneath Lake Sakakawea.
The well pad is 800 feet from Lake Sakakawea. The MHA Nation requires oil and gas development to be at least 1,000 feet away from the lake under tribal policy.
The tribe appealed a decision by the Bureau of Land Management to approve the drilling permits, arguing the agency is required to comply with laws enacted by the MHA Nation.
“The only way to protect Lake Sakakawea and the waters of the MHA Nation is to require enough setback from the lake to provide emergency response time in case a spill is not contained within the oil and gas facility,” the tribe argues in its appeal.
The issues before Judge Hovland relate to whether the Interior Board of Land Appeals followed its own rules when ordering Slawson to halt operations on Aug. 9.
Slawson argues in court records that the board’s deadline for suspending operations expired on July 10. The company also claims that the MHA Nation was not timely in filing its appeal.
Hovland granted Slawson’s request to allow work to continue for now, agreeing with the company's argument that the BLM has no obligation to enforce tribal law when making federal decisions affecting non-Indian lands.
Hovland also found that Slawson would incur significant financial losses to shut down drilling, remove the drilling rig and potentially lose leases if the appeal process is lengthy. His order allowing work to resume is in effect until the hearing on Aug. 29.
Slawson said it has spent $3.8 million so far to develop the wells, including installing a sound barrier wall to minimize impacts to the adjacent boat ramp and recreation area.
MHA Nation Chairman Mark Fox called Hovland’s ruling “disappointing” and said this is not the first time Slawson has failed to comply with tribal law.
“Slawson has been very difficult to work with on Fort Berthold, especially in relationship to ignoring or defying tribal jurisdiction or authority,” Fox said.
Sundberg said Slawson is a “prudent operator.”
“We adhere to regulations that apply to our operations,” Sundberg said.
The Interior Board of Land Appeals had not filed a response to the court challenge as of late Wednesday.