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Fracking-Fueled Land Grab Cheats North Dakota Tribes Out of $1 Billion, Suits Allege

The rush to get access to oil on tribal lands is part of the oil industry's larger push to secure drilling rights across the United States.

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Reservation lands are still held in trust by the U.S. government. As a trustee, the Department of the Interior has responsibility for overseeing the development of oil and gas on tribal lands, and for ensuring that any leases or sales of that land are made in "the best interest" of the Native Americans. When it comes to leases to drill for oil — even those negotiated directly between the tribal council and the oil industry — the Bureau of Indian Affairs is required to make sure the leases meet this standard.

The bureau did not respond to a list of written questions, but according to interviews and documents obtained by ProPublica, the bureau approved the leases even though some Interior Department staffers expressed misgivings. Other documents show that tribal members appealed to high-level Interior Department officials and others to reject the leases and step in on their behalf.

"Mr. Secretary, this company, Dakota-3, like the other companies in the oil business will turn around and sell the lease," wrote Russell Mason Sr., a tribal elder, to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in a December, 2007 letter. "We are making a plea to you that you exercise your trust responsibilities."

"The United States has uniformly failed in its duties to the Indian landowners," states one lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C. that was brought by tribal landowners seeking restitution for the Dakota-3 leases sold to Williams.

The Dakota-3 deals are not the only controversial ones. For example, a company called Black Rock Resources purchased drilling rights to about 12,800 acres of land for $35 per acre and a 16.7 percent royalty. It later sold those rights to Marathon Oil for about $42 million, according to financial documents that describe the deal.

Messages left for multiple Black Rock Resources officials were not returned, and Marathon Oil did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the Black Rock deal, and documents obtained by ProPublica reveal the sometimes-contradictory advice the Bureau of Indian Affairs received from its own staff and other federal officials.

When Black Rock first offered to buy up reservation leases for $35 per acre beginning in 2005, some bureau staff justified the rates saying the cumbersome regulations and past problems with leasing on the reservation had driven down demand. "Unfortunately," wrote one staffer in a department letter, $35 per acre "is what the market will bear."

But in a review dated November, 2005, an expert at the Bureau of Land Management wrote that the offered price "appears to look low compared to those offered recently at both BLM and North Dakota State competitive oil and gas lease sales in the area." He cited other sales that same month for as much as $370 an acre. An Interior Department lawyer in Washington sent a letter to North Dakota BIA officials expressing similar concerns.

Even at the time, the tribe received higher offers. Jerry Nagel is a tribe member, businessman and former program analyst for the tribe who has been outspoken against leases he thought were being sold for too little. In an interview, he said that he financed a venture in 2006 that offered the tribe $140 per acre plus a royalty rate more than twice as high as the tribal council was offered for the big leases it ultimately signed. It's unclear why the tribal council didn't take that offer, but Nagel claims it's evidence that the council gave preferential treatment to certain suitors.

The tribal council's office did not immediately respond to questions about why the council passed over Nagel's offer.

 
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