- By Chez Oxendine
A group of 26 Native landowners on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota seek to intervene in an ongoing civil dispute between the United States and the Tesoro High Plains Pipeline, alleging that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is not adequately representing their interests in the case.
The ongoing civil actions concern a pipeline initially built across the Fort Berthold Reservation in the 1950s. While the company initially secured rights of way with many of the allottees in question, as well as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Tribes, most of those rights of way expired in 2013. The MHA signed new rights of way in 2017, but negotiations with the individual allottees in the case fell through, and by 2020, Tesoro supposedly stopped operating the pipeline.
The allottees have issued a statement regarding their interest in the case, stating that the pipeline’s trespasses stretch back to 1993, when the BIA failed to secure new rights of way agreements for Tesoro from the allottees. Subsequent efforts to do so have ignored market rates, throughput, or other “well-established methodology” to ensure later renewals were fair to the allottees, the statement reads.
Landowners eventually won trespass damages following a private pipeline appraisal in 2020, with damages determined to be approximately $4 million, but a subsequent move by President Joe Biden’s administration to vacate that judgment and allow the Department of Interior to perform their own appraisal led to a “98 percent reduction” in awarded damages.
“The Biden Administration is clearly more concerned with protecting its own image and maintaining its subjective relationship with the powerful Marathon corporation than it is with protecting the interests of individual landowners,” reads a joint statement by the allottees. “ “They want to see this case go away. They have allowed Tesoro to assume the role of victim while it simultaneously continues to suppress and violate our protected civil rights, with the tacit permission and full support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We demand justice and accountability.”
The landowners’ push to intervene in the case caps off a case that has roiled back and forth since 2018, when their initial efforts to seek damages were launched. While those efforts finally bore fruit in 2020, the motion to vacate by President Biden’s administration set off a flurry of appeals and countersuits — including one such suit from Tesoro themselves, which claims the motion to vacate was done unlawfully.
The back and forth also produced a settlement proposed by the federal government in July 2022 that would have pushed the allottees to waive their claims against the BIA for an alleged breach of trust. That would only benefit the BIA and Tesoro, “exemplifying a conflict of interest” on behalf of the United States, the statement reads.
None of the subsequent actions since the BIA’s motion to vacate the previous judgment have been to the benefit of the tribal landowners involved, per the allottees' statement.
“Our interests have been inexcusably severely compromised by our federal trustee. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has allowed Tesoro to continue to reap exorbitant profits from our lands with no valid right to do so for over a decade,” the allottees wrote in a joint statement. “The federal government, for whatever reason, makes it a nightmare for us as private citizens to advocate for our own interests as Indian landowners.”
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