Only a handful of speakers offered comments at the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Dec. 12 listening session at the Osage Nation Civic Center, but the message was consistent and clear.
“You spent four years drafting this environmental impact study and we’re expected to digest it in about six weeks?” Osage Minerals Council consultant Fred Storer asked incredulously.
The study in question is a county-wide draft environmental impact statement that would impact drilling permitting regulations. It has been in the works for more than six years, with the original version roundly derided by shareholders and producers.
Published in the Nov. 22 edition of the Federal Register, the comment period on the 566-page proposal is open through Jan. 22, 2020, with BIA officials hoping to roll out a finished product for public review in May. The original deadline was Jan. 6, but BIA officials pushed back that date to accommodate business days lost due to the three federal holidays.
However, several attendees took to the microphone to plead for the comment period to be extended even further through late March or early April.
“There are a lot of reasons why we need more time,” Osage Producers Association member Mike Mackey said. “We need more time to just take a hard look at these options. This may be an improvement from where we were five years ago, but we still have a long way to go with this.”
As worded, the proposal offers up four courses of action the BIA could take with respect to environmental standards for drilling permits.
Option No. 1 would be for the BIA to simply not take any new action and continue administering oil and gas leasing, drilling permits and workover activities in Osage County.
Option No. 2 would put an emphasis on oil and gas development by requiring site-specific environmental assessments before drilling permits are issued. Based on production data, it projects that it would allow for an estimated 4,761 new wells by 2037.
Referred to in the study as a hybrid, option No. 3 would take 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 be subject to spacing regulations, including buffer zones for culturally significant sites.
Additionally, it would incorporate 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.
Option No. 4 would add to the list of site-specific protective measures that would have to be taken in order to get a drilling permit. For example, an emergency plan to provide drinking water would now have to be in place ahead of time in the event that a lessee’s activities contaminate an area’s existing supply.
It would also expand the list of areas now off-limits for new permits to include the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, all state parks, state wildlife management areas, municipalities, pasture areas used by the Bureau of Land Management for wild horses and any lakes administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The final version of the statement, whenever it is approved and enacted, is slated to replace a blanket declaration issued in 1979 that oil and gas operations in Osage County have no significant environmental impact.