BIA’s study criticized at meeting

Mike ErwinJournal-Capital
BIA’s study criticized at meeting

Proposed federal guidelines designed to make Osage County safe from the harmful effects of oil-and-gas production drew scant praise Monday at a public meeting sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) being drafted by the BIA might protect the area’s landscape and wildlife, but its negative impact on the county’s primary industry would devastate the local economy, according to many of the three dozen persons who spoke during the nearly three-hour session at the Wah-Zha-Zhe Cultural Center.

Included among the more than 200 in attendance were landowners, petroleum industry executives and oilfield workers, representatives of the Osage Nation and shareholders in the tribe’s Mineral Estate, as well as officials from the BIA and other federal agencies and departments.

BIA spokesperson Jeanine Hale encouraged the public to continue providing input in order to “help make this a good document.”

“We need to come up with conservation measures that we can live with,” Hale said.

Hale pointed out that the EIS is in no way related to a negotiated rulemaking process which sparked conflict earlier this year between the Bureau and Osage County oil producers. Those rules — which oilmen said would ruin the county’s oil industry — were ultimately put on hold by a federal lawsuit brought by the Osage Producers Association.

The BIA’s Osage Agency manages the county’s oil-and-gas operations for the benefit of the Osage tribe. A 1906 Congressional Act which disestablished the Osage Indian Reservation created a unique arrangement by which tribal members and their descendants have retained the ownership of all subsurface mineral rights within the nearly 1.5 million acres of the former reservation — which is contiguous to present day Osage County.

The EIS document currently contains 322 pages. It was requested after a 2013 lawsuit which mentioned that no environmental study had been conducted in the county since 1979. The suit asserted that all of the county’s oil-drilling operations are in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). BIA’s environmental study was started in mid-2013 and concluded in early 2014.

Osage headrights owner Susie Foreman, who spoke of potential disastrous impact from the proposed restrictions, said she was determined “to protect a 130-year-old legacy.”

Several producers asked for a more balanced version of the BIA guidelines, which they believe will favor the landowners at the expense of the oil-well operators. Landowners responded by sayig the previous arrangements had provided them with almost “no rights.” Others pointed out that the necessary regulations were already contained in the 1997 EIS and need only to be enforced.

“We don’t need new regulations, we need the BIA to enforce the ones they’ve already got,” said Nona Roach, an Osage Mineral Estate shareholder.

Independent producer (and shareholder) Paul Revard felt the entire EIS process was flawed.

“Start over,” said Revard. “Whoever wrote this was fairly clueless.”

Andy Minnick, an environmental specialist whose special focus has been the American Burying Beetle, took issue with several of the claims made in the BIA document. Minnick said many of the proposals are not applicable to Osage County.

There were a few heated exchanges, but the landowners and producers mainly just verbally jousted — with one another and the federal officials.

Spyglass Energy founder Charles Wickstrom suggested that the new environmental restrictions would effectively smother the county’s oil and gas production. He called the BIA proposals “strangulation by regulation.” Wickstrom argued that the federal guidelines are unnecessary because “this is not federal land.”

Osage Producers Association president Shane Matson said the producers had been forced to sue the Bureau over the negotiated rulemaking — and hinted that they might need to do so again.

“My guess is, we’ll be seeing you in court again,” Matson told BIA officials.

Hale noted that public comment period has been extended until Dec. 24. Asked to make specific complaints and suggest alternatives to the requirements deemed troublesome. She stressed that the current process in completely separate from the negotiated rulemaking.

“This is not rulemaking and these are not regulations,” Hale said.

Some of the speakers complained that the BIA was failing in its stated mission, which is to “… enhance the quality of life, to promote economic opportunity, and to carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, (and) Indian tribes…”

The BIA also will accept comments emailed to osagecountyoilandgaseis@bia.gov. T