A federal judge ruled Tuesday that an Inupiat Eskimo family from Barrow is owed $4.9 million for unauthorized use of its North Slope land for oil production by BP.
The long-running case pitted the Oenga family against the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, BP and other oil companies that own leases at Prudhoe Bay.
The BIA was in charge of collecting rent from BP, the Prudhoe Bay operator, which uses the family's Native allotment to access oil fields. The BIA was also in charge of negotiating lease payments with BP on the family's behalf.
The BIA approved BP's expanded use of the allotment without the family's consent, in violation of the family's contract with BP, according to last November's ruling in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims case. The Oengas had filed the civil case in 2005.
On Tuesday, federal claims court Judge Nancy Firestone of Washington, D.C., set damages in the case at $4.9 million. That amount was based on her calculation of how much rent the Oenga family was owed for the years that BP used their land without proper authorization.
In an eight-day trial last July, the BIA and BP defended themselves against the Oenga claims. BP, which pays annual rent for some access rights, argued that no additional money was owed to the family. The BIA argued that the family's claims for unpaid rent were exorbitant.
BP is still authorized to use the Oengas' land to access one Prudhoe Bay satellite oil field, Niakuk, but not two other satellite fields, Raven and Lisburne.
In late December, Firestone ordered BP to shut down the Raven oil field. Even though the field was producing only a tiny amount of oil, it was worth millions to BP over the last few years.
"In the last two years, BP has pumped $35 million worth of oil from Raven, a lot more than what we are owed," said Tony Delia, one of the Oenga family members who sued the BIA.
"BP even let Exxon and ARCO use Oengas' land for a fee," the family's attorney, Ray Givens said in a press statement Tuesday. "Even when the Oengas specifically asked the BIA to take action, it refused to tell BP to stop the unauthorized use and refused to collect additional rents from BP for the authorized use."
Givens said BP also hasn't paid proper rent for its use of the allotment to access the Niakuk field. But those legal claims were not included in this federal case. That dispute is being handled within BIA for now.
BIA officials did not return late afternoon calls for comment.
BP Alaska spokesman Steve Rinehart said the company is reviewing the opinion and considering its legal options, including an appeal of the ruling. The company is also looking at other ways to access nearby oil fields than using the Oenga's allotment.
He said BP anticipates that the BIA will ask it and other oil companies to pay a share of the $4.9 million judgment. "We expect to discuss that with the government," he said.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.