Federal judges tosses out Osage producer’s complaints

Mike ErwinJournal-Capital

TULSA — A lawsuit which accused the Bureau of Indian Affairs of causing irreparable harm to Osage County’s oil and gas production through its unreasonably-slow processing of applications for drilling permits was tossed out of federal court on June 1.

In the decision, Chief Judge Gregory K. Frizzell of the U.S. District Court for Northern Oklahoma said the Osage Producers Association had brought the action prematurely. He ruled the alliance of county oil/gas producers had not yet exhausted all of the administrative remedies that were available to it.

Frizzell dismissed the producers association suit, saying it represented a “generic” challenge to the BIA’s administrative responsibilities. The judge also said the producers’ complaints about the Bureau for being “vague.”

During a May hearing before Frizzell, Osage drillers had sparred with the Bureau’s legal counsel after the OPA refered to the “futility” of appealing its concerns to officials at the Osage Agency. Producer/attorney Jamie Sicking alleged the Agency was deliberately “withholding or delaying applications for drilling permits.”

One week earlier, BIA lawyers asked the judge to terminate the OPA suit, saying there was no basis for the producers’ contention that the environmental requirements causing the Bureau to delay approval of the drilling permits were “arbitrary.”

The association urged Frizzell to refrain from dismissing its suit. OPA officials argued that they were “challenging a large number of specific decisions, not the (Osage) Agency’s entire permitting program.”

Ultimately, the judge decided that U.S. district court lacked jurisdiction over the matters being raised by the producer. Citing the association’s failure to avail itself of the Agency’s “administrative remedies,” Frizzell ruled the OPA lacked proper standing to bring the lawsuit.

The OPA filed the action in August, shortly after Frizzell had sided with producers’ arguments for disallowing the BIA and U.S. Department of the Interior to implement a wide range of revised regulations over oil and gas leases on the former Indian Reservation land of Osage County.

In their attempt to have the judge require Agency approval of the drilling permits, the oil producers were challenging the Bureau’s unique historical status regarding the land of Osage County. BIA trusteeship over the Osage Mineral Estate was created by a 1906 Congressional Act which helped clear the way for Oklahoma statehood. The Osage Allotment Act granted the tribe ongoing communal ownership of resources on the land of its former Reservation — which is coterminous with modern-day Osage County.

Under the 1906 Act, the Bureau is responsible for administering to the development of oil and gas resources in Osage County for the benefit of Osage Tribe. The trust land overseen by the Agency consists of approximately 1.4 million acres encompassing the Osage Mineral Reserve — which covers almost the entire county.