The High-Water Mark: Energy-Driven Property Disputes in Western North Dakota

Authors: Caroline Griffith*, University of Wisconsin - Madison
Topics: Legal Geography, Energy, Indigenous Peoples
Keywords: Northern Great Plains, oil, property rights
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 40
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This research investigates legal geographies of property and sovereignty in Western North Dakota, a new energy frontier that supports some of the continent’s highest production in oil, gas, and renewable alternatives like wind power. Around 2008, a major oil boom in the Bakken Shale formation made North Dakota the second-largest oil producer in the country, and today the state yields an average of over one million barrels of oil per day. At the heart of this extractive landscape is Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir of the Garrison Dam on the Upper Missouri River that was created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s. One of the flashpoints of the Bakken oil boom has been the subterranean landscape beneath this lake, which has been embroiled in legal contestations over the past decade between the state, the tribal government of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation, and private citizens. Oil-driven property disputes in Western North Dakota reveal the uncertain legal ground of subterranean mineral rights, and have the potential to set new legal precedent in ways that will have ramifications on extractive landscapes across the United States. To understand how these issues manifest in western North Dakota, this research identifies the primary obstacles that drive contemporary property disputes over extractive activity in the Lake Sakakawea watershed; examines the historical accretion of federal, state, and tribal laws that govern access to mineral resources in the region; and interrogates the state’s attempts to reach a legal resolution.

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