In a case that carries tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of impact, a North Dakota District Court judge rendered the first opinion in a dispute over who is entitled to subsurface mineral rights in the “shore zone” along two major navigable waterways in the state. Ultimately, the issue will need to be resolved by the state Supreme Court, state officials said.

Williams County District Court Judge David Nelson ruled on three consolidated cases involving lawsuits against North Dakota by private landowners and industry operator Brigham Oil regarding who has title to minerals under the shore zone, the area on the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers located between the ordinary high and low watermarks.

The plaintiffs all were opposing the state’s arguments contending that shore zone minerals are owned by riparian (waterway bank) landowners. Nelson concluded in a three-page ruling that the state “as part of its title to the beds of navigable waterways, owns the minerals in the area, and this public title excludes ownership and any proprietary interest by riparian landowners.”

Nelson acknowledged that his decision “is not necessarily the final word on this title question, and that circumstances may warrant an immediate appeal.”

For bonuses, or the right to lease, the state has booked nearly $100 million in shore zones, according to Lance Gaebe, the head of the North Dakota Trust Land Department.

“There is a recognition that the ruling is not the last word on the topic,” Gaebe told NGI Monday. “It has been long talked about and there has been some previous litigation on the ownership of the surface [shore zone] bed of the rivers so to speak, but there haven’t been any real determinations by the state regarding the minerals under that [land].”

Gaebe sees hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in the ultimate state Supreme Court decision. He noted that the navigability and the riverbeds themselves are not part of the legal action.

In a statement issued to local news media, state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the district court ruling correctly captured the status of the applicable state law, but it was only a “first step” and that the state now hoped to have the matter presented to the state Supreme Court “as expeditiously as possible.

“[The Supreme Court] will likely have the final word in the matter,” Stenehjem said.

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