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ON Congress approves grant funding for orphan well cleanup

The Osage Minerals Council will utilize over $90M in federal grant funds over the next five years in efforts to plug orphan wells and remediate areas affected by a century of drilling

Two new grants are on the way to help plug orphaned and abandoned wells on the Osage Reservation. But before the help could arrive, the Nation’s Congress and Osage Minerals Council had to clear up some misconceptions and address some concerns from Osage shareholders.

According to an Osage Nation press release, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Orphaned Wells Program Office awarded the Nation’s Office of Self Governance the Orphaned Well Program Development Grant and the Orphaned Wells Program Implementation Grant, totaling $19.1 million.

The Orphaned Wells Program Implementation Grant ($18.1 million) is part of a larger five-year award totaling approximately $91 million, which the Nation has applied to receive.

During the Osage Congress’ 9th Special Session, the funding for both grants was approved with the stipulation the funding is to be utilized by the OMC. The Council has already successfully plugged 88 orphaned wells.

There are more than 1,600 documented abandoned wells on the reservation and when left unplugged, these wells can emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, leak saltwater and cause other environmental damages, according to the release.

During the December special session, the appropriations committee debated ONCA 24-12 (sponsored by Congressman Scott BigHorse), the bill that would implement the two grants.

Congresswoman Jodie Revard, who chairs the appropriations committee, said she knew there would be a lot of discussion around who would manage the money. For months, there has been online chatter from concerned shareholders that the Nation would use the grant money for other purposes and not release the money to the OMC.

“Treasury most certainly has a big part in that of course, and compliance,” Revard said.

“I’m hoping that they have some good discussions with the Minerals Council and with the chief’s office.”

During the appropriations meeting the committee received comments from Osage constituents, one of which was read aloud and said, “The executive branch shouldn’t be the ones to have to sign off on it. Congress shouldn’t have to be the ones to appropriate the money.” 

Congressional Speaker Alice Goodfox responded by saying, “That’s not how it works. In 2006, the government was reformed. Whether people like it or not, it passed. This is where we’re at.” She also reiterated her faith in all parties, the Legislature, the Executive Branch and the Minerals Council to work together for the betterment of all.

The bill was first brought up in late October by Congress but was tabled to let the Minerals Council discuss it during their November meetings.

Congresswoman Paula Stabler said there had been a lot of discussion about the bill because it involved a lot of different departments within the Executive Branch. She said one thing everyone agrees on is that they don’t want to lose the money.

“Not only is it a lot of money that it would take us a lifetime to try to build up – it’s just such a great opportunity for us to do something that everybody really feels like would be such a bonus to all the entities as well, not just the surface owners but to the minerals and to the shareholders,” she said.

Section one of the bill reads as follows:

“The Osage Nation is the recipient of nineteen million one hundred thousand four hundred fourteen dollars ($19,100,414) in Non-Tribal funds for orphan well plugging and remediation for the Osage Minerals Council, which shall be administered in accordance with Federal law, regulation, and grant guidelines.”  

During the Minerals Council’s Dec. 1 meeting, council members approved an agreement to work with the Nation’s Executive Branch on implementing the grant. The council had also applied for the grants but since they’re an entity within the Osage Nation, they were denied, hence why the Office of Self Governance applied for the grants and were awarded.

Congresswoman Revard acknowledged the Council’s role in the well plugging program and said the Executive Branch and the legislature also have a part to play in taking care of the land.

“I think, as a shareholder, I do believe it is the job of the Minerals Council to develop and manage the mineral estate. But there’s also other functions that the Executive Branch has that the Minerals Council does not,” Revard said. Some of those responsibilities are writing grants, managing grants, and assisting with the grant’s compliance.

During the Dec. 19 appropriations meeting, Congressman Billy Keene, who used to work in the Nation’s grants department, clarified how grants are applied for and said he wanted to clear up any misunderstandings.

“It always filters back out through the executive branch, even though we do give the Minerals Council some autonomy. So that really needs to be clear because I think a lot of this dispute is just personal animus and lack of trust between some of our branches of government,” Keene said, acknowledging there had been some shareholders who felt the executive branch may have been overreaching when applying for the well plugging grant.

“You literally cannot be awarded a grant as the Minerals Council, wholly separate, without any executive branch input. The law does not allow that.”

The bill was enacted and signed by Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear on Dec. 20.

Minerals Councilman Anthony Shackelford said he understands how important it is to work with all the branches of government for purposes of compliance on the grant and how it will affect future funding. He told the appropriations committee the Council already has a list of priority wells they want to start with.

“We understand that it’s going to be something that’s going to help all Osages – prioritizing, whether it’s on the ranch, other properties and specifically Osage landowners that have problems on their land with these orphan wells, remediation, all these things can be sat down and discussed and put on a priority list together,” Shackelford said.

“It’s all Osage, everybody benefits at this point and moving forward.”


Allison Herrera
Allison Herrera
Title: Freelance Reporter
Languages spoken: English

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs Desk.

Herrera recently worked on Bloomberg and iHeart Media's In Trust with Rachel Adams-Heard, an investigative podcast about Osage Headrights.

She currently works for KOSU as their Indigenous Affairs Reporter. Herrera’s Native ties are from her Xolon Salinan tribal heritage.

In her free time, she likes buying fancy earrings, running and spending time with her daughter.


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