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Energy-Producing Tribal Nation Hopes New Interior Secretary Will Make Drilling Easier

Rep. Deb Haaland D-N.M., sworn in during a Senate Committee hearing on Feb. 23 in Washington, D.C. She was confirmed as first Native American Interior Secretary on Mar. 15.
Graeme Jennings
Rep. Deb Haaland D-N.M., sworn in during a Senate Committee hearing on Feb. 23 in Washington, D.C. She was confirmed as first Native American Interior Secretary on Mar. 15.

The Osage Nation in northeastern Oklahoma is one of about a dozen tribal nations in the U.S. that has significant oil and gas reserves. The reserves are key to the tribe's economy, and its citizens are optimistic that newly-confirmed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will help them continue to prosper.

The seat of Osage Nation is the community of Pawhuska, home to millions of acres of tallgrass prairie. That's where 72-year-old Julie Malone lives.

She inherited her tribal oil and gas shares from her grandfather Clarence Joseph Revard. To Malone, the money produced those shares is a safety net.

"That money is a cushion for my retirement," she says.

"I will never be without anything. Knowing that's there gives me great comfort."

The most recent quarterly payment topped out at a little more than $2500. But, there was a time when those payments reached $40,000 quarterly.

To Malone though, it's more than just money. It's about a long history of the federal government trying to take what belongs to her people.

"For more than 100 years, we've had to fight every bit of the way."

That's why there is concern here in the Osage Nation over Haaland's record opposing the fossil fuel industry and expanding environmental protections on public lands. Her views became widely known while she served as a U.S. Representative from New Mexico. Although Haaland did say at her interior secretary confirmation hearing that the ban on oil and gas leases doesn't extend to tribal lands.

During that hearing, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) grilled Haaland on her statements about the environment. He also pointed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and what he described as the onerous process it put the Osage Minerals Council through when getting oil and gas leases approved. Lankford brought up one instance in particular: an endangered beetle was discovered and put new oil and gas leases on hold, crippling Osage production.

Haaland didn't back down.

"I know that every listing is different. So, what I would say is, if I'm confirmed, I would absolutely work with the scientists who manage these species and absolutely take a good close look," Haaland said during her confirmation hearing last month.

Unlike some other tribal nations, Osage Nation owns its reservation. In 1877, the tribe purchased the land from the Cherokee Nation and decided to permanently settle in northwest Oklahoma after a brutal removal campaign from their homeland in Kansas, Missouri and parts of Oklahoma. Owning what's underground — the oil and gas — has benefitted generations of Osage.

Everett Waller is the chairman of the Osage Minerals Council. He says having control over the land has been important for many generations.

"My Osages knew there's something there," Waller says. "We didn't know exactly what it is. But we knew that it might be very, very thoughtful to protect it now. And we did."

Waller is responsible for maximizing profits for Osage Nation shareholders, so he needs to lure oil companies to lease land. He thinks Haaland will be good because she understands tribal sovereignty.

"I think that she will identify that I speak on behalf of a fossil fuel tribe, the oldest. So I'm going to look at, 'How do we face the future and production?' "

One of the problems Waller wants Haaland's help with is cutting through the red tape and bureaucracy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribal nations have more hurdles to jump through to get oil and gas leases than do many corporation. That's why it's been so slow for the Osage Nation to obtain permits to drill.

Nona Roach has experienced that red tape. She's worked with the Osage Minerals Council and has dealt with the B.I.A. for the last several years.

"We're trying to get our leases approved and our permits approved to drill," Roach says. "We're taking over 100 days, which is unheard of."

Roach, a member of the Cherokee Nation and a landowner within the Osage Nation, says Haaland is going to have to work with shareholders, land owners like herself and oil producers if she wants to get anything done in a place like Osage County.

Back in Pawhuska, Julie Malone says she also supports Haaland because of her record and because she knows what it's like to be an Indigenous person living in the U.S.

"This is our home and we want our children and grandchildren to inherit a good home," Malone says.

Malone and others within the Osage Nation know oil production on Osage land isn't going to last forever, but it's also not going to end overnight.

Copyright 2021 KOSU

Allison Herrera joined KOSU in November 2015, after serving as the editor of the award-winning online publication the Twin Cities Daily Planet.