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Bismarck, N.D. • An oil-rich American Indian tribe in North Dakota was handed a setback Thursday in its fight against a Texas company building oil and natural gas pipelines beneath a lake on its reservation.
The Three Affiliated Tribes ordered the project halted last month, saying Sacagawea Pipeline developer Paradigm Energy Partners needed tribal permission to place the pipelines beneath Lake Sakakawea, and that it made no assurances that water supplies wouldn't be harmed.
U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland temporarily allowed construction to continue last week. On Thursday, the judge again refused to stop construction. He's expected to rule within the next two weeks on whether the company should've gotten tribal permission and the project can move forward.
Hovland said the case revolves around a "multitude of complex issues," and that there appears to be no existing precedence.
"It sounds like I'm going to be left to interpret this with no guidance from anybody," Hovland said during daylong hearing.
The company said it has federal permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to run the pipelines beneath the lake along the Missouri River. The tribes argue that they own mineral interests beneath the river bed and their permission is needed to place a pipeline there, under a 1984 accord with the federal government.
North Dakota's Public Service Commission approved construction of the $125 million, 70-mile-long oil pipeline project in January and it's now complete, though it's not moving crude at present. The company said the $16.6 million gas pipeline is about 45 days from completion.
Chris Doss, the Paradigm's chief operating officer, said the company faces a Nov. 1 deadline to complete the gas pipeline due to an agreement with another landowner. He said delaying the project jeopardizes the project and the future of the company.
"We can't afford any delays at all," he said.
About 20 percent of the more than 1 million barrels of oil produced daily comes from the Fort Berthold Reservation, occupied by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. The tribes have a 12 percent stake in the oil pipeline but do not have a working interest in the gas pipeline.
Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Mark Fox said the company was told several times "that they need to have full council approval or they will not be able to cross the lake."
Tribal officials said the company offered the tribe up to $2 million in June to resolve certain issues, and while drilling already had started beneath the lake.
"They tried to get our consent, they didn't get it and the bored anyway," said John Fredericks, an attorney for the tribes. "As far as we're concerned, they're trespassing."
Fox said it wanted the company to, among other things, assure to the more than 12,500 tribal members on the reservation that the pipelines are safe.
Paradigm Chief Executive Officer Troy Andrews said the money was offered to resolve right-of-way and other issues, even though the company believes it already has the necessary permits for the project.
"We still would like to get a deal done," Andrews said.
It's the second pipeline project being challenged by American Indians in North Dakota. About 150 miles downstream on the Missouri River, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is protesting against the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline that they say could disturb sacred sites and impact drinking water for 8,000 tribal members and millions further downstream.
A federal judge will rule before Sept. 9 on whether construction can be halted on the pipeline, which will pass through both Dakotas, Iowa and Illinois.
Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II attended the hearing in Bismarck.
"I'm here supporting the Three Affiliated Tribes and their water rights," Archambault told The Associated Press. "It's the right thing to do."