The oil company that has faced opposition for drilling next to Lake Sakakawea on the Fort Berthold Reservation now proposes to drill 23 new wells near the lake.
Slawson Exploration has drilling permit applications under review by the Bureau of Land Management for wells in five locations on the reservation, some less than 1,000 feet from the lake.
The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation requires a 1,000-foot setback for oil wells near Lake Sakakawea. The tribe also requires oil companies to get a variance from the Tribal Business Council for drilling within a half-mile of the lake.
But Slawson maintains that those tribal regulations don’t apply to these wells because they are on private land and the company is developing non-Indian oil and gas minerals underneath Lake Sakakawea.
“There’s no application of that tribal law to these projects,” said Eric Sundberg, Slawson vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs. “That continues to be reaffirmed in court cases.”
Previously, the MHA Nation has challenged the BLM’s approval of Slawson wells drilled near the Van Hook arm of Lake Sakakawea adjacent to a popular boat ramp and recreation area. The tribe argues in court documents the well site threatens Lake Sakakawea, the tribe’s primary source of drinking water and a critical natural, cultural and recreational resource.
MHA has lost attempts to stop development of that site, known as the Torpedo Federal pad, which also is on private land and involves developing non-Indian minerals.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland issued a ruling in Slawson’s favor in August 2017, stating he agreed with the company’s argument that the BLM has no obligation to enforce tribal law when making federal decisions affecting non-Indian lands. The tribe continues to appeal with a lawsuit pending against the U.S. Department of Interior.
Sundberg said he anticipates the MHA Nation will challenge the latest drilling permit applications, which are for locations southeast of New Town. Three of the proposed well pads would be newly constructed sites and the other two would be expansions of existing well pads.
One proposed well pad could be as close as 6 feet from Lake Sakakawea during peak flood stage, according to maps provided by the BLM.
“I bet during a normal year it’s 500 to 600 feet away,” said Sundberg, adding that the wells will be farther from the lake than the edge of the well pad.
The other well pad locations would be from 417 feet to 1,000 feet from Lake Sakakawea when the water is at its highest level, according to the BLM map.
The horizontal wells will extend 2.5 to 3 miles beneath Lake Sakakawea to develop federal, state and private minerals, Sundberg said. In some cases, topography limited the company's ability to move the well pad locations, he said.
MHA Chairman Mark Fox did not respond to a request for an interview for this story. In an interview with the Tribune last month, Fox said the tribe’s regulations should apply to all oil development within the boundaries of Fort Berthold.
“If there’s a contamination or impact to occur, it’s not going to just gravitate to only fee lands or only fee properties. We’re all going to be impacted one way or another,” Fox said at the time.
The BLM is accepting comments on the drilling permit applications through Oct. 5.
Meanwhile, Slawson continues to develop the Torpedo Federal well pad near the Van Hook arm of Lake Sakakawea, with wells expected to be complete around Nov. 25, Sundberg said.