The oil pump jack is a symbol of Oklahoma. Found throughout the state, moving up and down, the pump brings oil to the surface and money to the state.
Idle pumps are a symbol of Oklahoma in a different way: dried up, abandoned, orphaned wells.
The Osage Nation has experienced the ups and downs of the oil jack. Active wells have brought untold wealth to the nation since the 1890s; orphaned wells bring commensurate sorrow.
Ideally, when a well runs dry or a company ceases operating the well, the operator plugs it, usually with concrete, to ensure against leaks of gas, oil or water. But in a time of financial crisis, and sometimes because of shear ineptitude, a well is not plugged properly. This has happened often on Osage land.
According to a recent report by the American Geosciences Institute, “orphaned wells are often abandoned without any plugging or cleanup, but even plugged wells may leak, especially those plugged in the past, when plugging procedures were less rigorous and used less durable materials.” Leaking wells can pollute groundwater, emit dangerous methane gas and damage the surrounding surface environment – all of which pose a threat to Osage families.
Since 1906, a tribal council has overseen oil fields in the Osage Mineral Estate, under the supervision of the Osage Agency of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Some orphaned wells have been cleaned up by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, but hundreds of others need plugging, and this requires Bureau of Indian Affairs dollars.
Last year, Cynthia Boone of the Osage Minerals Council addressed a U.S. House appropriations subcommittee with a report from Department of the Interior’s inspector general that faulted the BIA Osage Agency for mismanagement of oil and gas resources.
“Unfortunately, and similar to other energy-producing tribes, development of the Osage Mineral Estate has been obstructed by the BIA Osage Agency’s lack of sufficient staff, expertise and resources to effectively manage and oversee energy development,” she said.
The Osage Agency declined to comment for this article.
Boone said administrative flaws had resulted in up to “several thousand unplugged and abandoned wells in the Osage Mineral Estate, of which the BIA has identified roughly 1,400 wells as a priority for plugging.” Boone and the Osage Minerals Council asked Congress for a $5 million budget increase in 2019 for identifying and plugging orphaned wells.
Bill Lynn, director of the Osage Minerals Council, says Congress probably won’t appropriate the full amount, but any money would help. The council awaits $3 million budgeted by Congress for 2018.
Funds are also needed to verify a working list of 1,602 possible orphaned wells. When cataloged, those orphaned wells will be ranked in terms of danger to the public. Only then will the work of pouring concrete and cleanup begin.