After seven years of hearings, comments and drafts, a signed record of decision is in the books for the Osage County Environmental Impact Study.
Issued on Dec. 15 by Eastern Oklahoma Regional Director Eddie Streater, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is replacing an outdated environmental impact study with one that will allow exploration and drilling throughout most of Osage County.
Citing the need to fulfill its leasing and trust obligations under the 1906 Act, as well as the continued economic fallout from COVID-19 and public pushback from the Osage Minerals Council and other interested parties, the decision calls for the implementation of a tweaked version of a management plan that was originally proposed, but was not recommended earlier this year.
“Allowing the entire Osage Mineral Estate to remain available for leasing and economic development provides the Osage Nation with the opportunity to maximize revenues, which has economic benefits for Osage shareholders, the community and the state of Oklahoma,” BIA officials wrote in the decision rationale.
“In addition, it provides the BIA with flexibility in decision-making, which is beneficial where, as here, the BIA does not know what areas of the Osage Mineral Estate will be explored, leased or developed in the future.”
As written, the new plan incorporates tiered, site-specific environmental assessments for drilling and workover permits and the Bureau of Indian Affairs will have the option to waive or impose additional conditions of approval as environmental conditions warrant. The plan also requires buffer zones for culturally significant sites, although the specific sizes of the buffer zones will vary based on the nature of the site.
In October, the BIA issued its final record and recommended adopting a management plan that would have taken into account the density of wells in an area before allowing new drilling permits, with fewer issued for sections with 17 wells or more. Sections with a lower well density would have been subject to spacing regulations, including buffer zones for culturally significant sites.
Additionally, it would have incorporated a blanket ban on drilling permits for areas within municipalities, near sensitive water supplies or near “highly vulnerable” groundwater supplies as designated by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.
That plan originally recommended by the BIA received a chilly reception from the Osage Minerals Council, with several members commenting in early 2020 that they were prepared to go to federal court if it were to be adopted and enacted.
This statement replaces a blanket declaration issued in 1979 that oil and gas operations in Osage County have no significant environmental impact. That declaration was ruled outdated in 2014, setting the study in motion. A previous draft was put forward in 2015, but was panned by both producers and shareholders.
At the Dec. 16 Osage Minerals Council meeting, Chairman Andrew Yates expressed his satisfaction with the decision and its potential impact on oil and gas production in 2021.
“It shows that the council came together as a unified group, discussed this and got this decision that is favorable to the shareholders,” he said. “I’m excited.”