North Dakota Oil Drilling Suit Gets Boot From Washington

WASHINGTON (CN) – A Native American tribe opposed to oil and gas drilling underneath Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota should not have filed their case in Washington, a federal judge ruled Tuesday. 

“The District of North Dakota is already familiar with the parties and the facts in this case and, contrary to the tribe’s assertion, has already considered many of the tribe’s substantive arguments,” U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper wrote, granting a motion by the Slawson Exploration Co. to have the case transferred. 

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation brought the suit here last year, contesting permits that allow Slawson to drill a well pad in the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

More than a third of the North Dakota’s oil reserves lie within the reservation, but the complaint says tribal law requires all well sites to be at least 1,000 feet from the lake. The site Slawson is set to drill is just 600 feet away, a distance said to risk the health of the 15,000 Native Americans for whom the lake is their primary source of drinking water.

Vying to keep its suit in Washington, the tribe said its case presents questions of “national importance” and may have “national implications,” noting that the lake flows into the Missouri River and an oil spill would threaten this body of water as well.

The argument did little, however, to sway Judge Cooper.

“While the Missouri River is undoubtedly a national waterway, this case concerns only Lake Sakakawea and its immediate environs,” he wrote. “And the tribe fails to explain how a spill resulting from drilling operations in the lake would likely affect sections of the Missouri River beyond those environs, let alone in states other than North Dakota.” 

Cooper noted that a threshold question in this case will be whether the tribe had the authority to pass a 1,000-foot setback law in the first place. The tribe thus far has presented two sources of authority for the setback law, including its inherent sovereign powers to protect tribal members’ health and welfare and its federally approved 1936 constitution.

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