It was April 30th, and oil men near Tioga were falling behind schedule. “We should have begun drilling by now,” said one, “and here we haven’t even been able to get our rigs in the field.”
One might guess the problem was weather or spring flooding, but that April had been among the driest in history. No, the problem was 50 freight cars of equipment arriving from Minneapolis. There simply weren’t enough trucks or qualified drivers for hauling it out to the drilling sites.
With the Williston basin considered one of the nation’s hottest oil prospects, the lack of workers wasn’t the only challenge facing the state. The legislature was handling a hot potato regarding mineral rights.
Lieutenant Governor Ray Schnell said, “I’ve talked to a great many people who sold their land, and it appears without a doubt that the government agents did not inform them that they had the right to keep their minerals.”
Schnell was referring to about 800,000 acres in McKenzie, Slope and Billings Counties. These acres were considered sub-marginal, because they were unsuitable for growing crops. After buying up these areas, the government had set them aside for cattle grazing.
For some people, the land buys were viewed as handouts to smaller ranchers who were hard hit by drought and economic depression. But at $2.80 per acre, Lieutenant Governor Schnell estimated about 90% of these buyouts were closer to foreclosures or seizures by eminent domain. The other 10% of the ranchers, he said, received so-called “preference rights” based on the number of cattle they owned.
Pending legislation would decide whether dispossessed ranchers could buy back the mineral rights. Those who were opposed called this “immoral,” “special interest,” “improper,” and a “big grab.”
It’s worth noting, however, that more than 200,000 acres in Billings County was already in the process of being leased to large corporations for oil and gas exploration – and opponents worried that passage of the bill would hold up drilling.
Meanwhile, news was coming in that Tioga Petroleum had just completed North Dakota’s eighth functioning oil well – and the first to be constructed by an independent oil company from within the state.
And so it was – on this date in 1952 – that oil production in North Dakota provided a glimpse of the future – both promising and troubling.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm