Unanimous Supreme Court ruling over a family’s mineral royalties may affect millions of dollars still in court

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A few weeks back, a unanimous ruling by the North Dakota Supreme Court sided with the Wilkinson family.

It’s a case we have been following for years, involving mineral rights on land, taken for the construction of a dam that created Lake Sakakawea.

The high court decided the Wilkinson family, not the state, owns the oil and gas mineral rights on their 286 acres, now under the Missouri River reservoir.

Not only will more than $900,000 in mineral royalties, accrued over a decade, be returned from the state in this case, but the Wilkinsons’ lawyer says the ruling will affect the outcome of several other cases, and 100s of thousands of mineral acres that are still up in the air.

“That’s a long haul for a multinational corporation if they were to be fighting the government. And for a family that is from North Dakota, and has roots here, to take on that fight and prevail on it, just such a tremendous win for them,” shared the Wilkinson family’s lawyer, Josh Swanson of Vogel Law Firm.

Swanson has represented the Wilkinsons since 2014, in a lawsuit initially filed back in 2012, over mineral rights royalties the family hasn’t been receiving since 2010.

“The state was literally rolling out the red carpet for more lawsuits, and in fact, they’ve now done that,” Swanson added.

Swanson is representing several other families in a similar bind with the state of North Dakota. He tells me the Wilkinson case was the first of its kind and will set precedent for the rest.

“Other similarly situated mineral owners should be sending them a ‘Thank You’ card, because now, with the decision in this case, all of these other mineral owners can now get paid because of this family’s fight,” he explained.

“I really didn’t have any expectations for it,” shared North Dakota Land Commissioner Jodi Smith when asked about her thoughts on the Wilkinson case.

She doesn’t expect the result of the Wilkinson case to have a big effect on other cases still in court.

“The Wilkinson’s is really specifically about the property that was in question for them. The other case that really impacts the royalty owners was the Sorum lawsuit,” Smith explained.

“That one is really the one that implicates the whole 83 miles along the river.”

It was the case that brought forth the most recent redrawing of the original Missouri riverbed, now buried under Lake Sakakawea.

You can see that line in red, below:

Any land in yellow means the state is currently collecting royalties off of it.

The Wilkinsons’ land that was in question is in yellow, outlined in green. But because of the brand new red line, as of this year, anything in yellow that’s in between the old line in green and the new red line will require reimbursement to landowners, starting at the end of the month.

“We commonly refer to it as the WENCK Line in our department,” Smith said, pointing to the red line.

It affects about 600 leases and almost 50,000 acres.

As for the Wilkinsons, they’re not done yet. The next step for them is district court.

“And it could be another million dollars more in damages,” Swanson said.

“Because not only did the Wilkinson’s incur attornies fees and costs, for the better part of a decade, they were without the value and the income from that production. And that number keeps going up month after month.”

A date should be set very soon.

Swanson says, ironically enough, the state and oil operators’ deadline to transfer the initial royalties to the Wilkinsons (worth almost a million) is Christmas Day.

However, Smith says the money won’t go directly into the Wilkinsons’ pockets. It’s given to the oil and gas operators who leased it from the state in the first place.

She says mineral owners will have to work with those companies to get the money they’re owed.

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