Mineral rights on hold amid North Dakota tribes' lawsuit

Mark Fox is sworn in as chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation on Nov. 5, 2014, in New Town, N.D. (AP Photo/Josh Wood, File)

The Associated Press

At stake is more than $100 million in unpaid royalties and future payments certain to come from oil drilling beneath the Missouri River

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A U.S. Interior Department opinion rolling back an Obama-era memo stating mineral rights under the original Missouri River bed should belong to the Three Affiliated Tribes has been put on hold by a federal judge until arguments can be heard in the case. 

The memo filed May 26 by Daniel Jorjani, solicitor for the department, said a historical review shows the state is the legal owner of submerged lands beneath the river where it flows through the Fort Berthold Reservation. 

The tribes argue that three previous federal opinions dating to 1936 have confirmed their ownership of the Missouri River riverbed, including a 2017 memo by former solicitor Hilary Tompkins.

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation sued the government last month.

(Related: Three Affiliated Tribes sue over minerals ruling)

Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Mark Fox said in a statement at the time that the federal agency "violated both its fiduciary duty as the tribe's trustee and its treaty obligations" in the "false" opinion.

At stake is more than $100 million in unpaid royalties and future payments certain to come from oil drilling beneath the river, which was dammed by the federal government in the 1950s, flooding more than a tenth of the 1,500-square-mile reservation to create Lake Sakakawea.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled Friday that no oil and gas royalties in dispute will be paid until the court resolves the issue. 

Final documents in the case are due by the middle of October.

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