Family members who took their fight over oil and gas minerals to the North Dakota Supreme Court said they’re “elated” over an opinion issued this week in their favor.
The Supreme Court reversed an earlier ruling in a court case involving the William S. Wilkinson family and the North Dakota Board of University and School Lands, sending the case back to district court.
The Supreme Court, in the opinion released late Thursday, also ruled that new legislation adopted this past session related to minerals under Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River should apply retroactively to the mineral dispute.
Jon Patch, a descendant of the Wilkinson family, called the ruling “a big win for those who care about personal property rights.”
The family argues the state took their oil and gas mineral rights from property acquired by the federal government for the construction of the Garrison Dam.
North Dakota legislators earlier this year adopted Senate Bill 2134, which clarifies that the state does not own minerals under Lake Sakakawea and sets up a process to define the ordinary high water mark of the Missouri River channel as it existed before the Garrison Dam.
The family’s attorney, Joshua Swanson, said he believes that, if the district court applies the new legislation, the Wilkinsons should be the party to end up with the mineral rights.
The Supreme Court also ruled that the Wilkinsons are entitled to compensation if the government’s action results in a “taking” of mineral interests.
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Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in a statement Friday that his office will consult with the Department of Trust Lands and the state engineer to “further analyze the opinion and determine what course to pursue.”
“The Supreme Court’s decision is not wholly unexpected, given that the Legislature took the action to require a review survey of the historical ordinary high water mark of the Missouri River bed channel by the Department of Mineral Resources while this case was still before the court,” Stenehjem said.
Patch said the legal battle has been “a very long and hard, stressful fight” for his family, who are seeking to preserve his grandfather’s legacy.
Patch estimates his family spent about $400,000 in legal costs to take on the state and two oil companies. He said the family doesn’t expect oil and gas royalties will be much more than that amount.
“It’s not like we’re going to be seeing a windfall off of this,” Patch said. “We’re doing this to do what’s right for the legacy of my grandfather and for all citizens who care about private property rights.”
The case has been closely watched by the oil industry and other mineral owners.
“The Wilkinson case illustrates how complex these cases are and why the Legislature decided to get involved,” said Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources.
Meanwhile, work began this week by the consultant selected to conduct the review survey required by the new legislation. The consultant, Wenck Associates, is expected to complete the work in the spring. The survey will be available for public comment before the Industrial Commission will consider adopting it.