Energy & Environment

EPA moves to reverse decision giving Oklahoma control over some tribal issues

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday proposed the withdrawal of a Trump-era rule that gave the state of Oklahoma jurisdiction over certain environmental issues on tribal lands.

Last October, the EPA granted the state’s request for such jurisdiction under a carve-out from a 2005 law that grants the state environmental oversight “in the areas of the state that are in Indian country, without any further demonstration of authority by the state.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) submitted the request shortly after the Supreme Court’s Oklahoma v. McGirt decision, in which the high court ruled 5-4 that much of eastern Oklahoma was legally part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation.

Since then, the EPA said in a statement that it has extensively consulted with representatives from the Sooner State’s 38 tribal nations, in addition to holding meetings between agency leadership and eight individual tribes. The agency faulted Trump-era leadership for what it said was “abbreviated” consultation on the matter with tribes that lasted under a month.

The EPA will accept comments from stakeholders on the proposal through Jan. 31, with the state retaining the authority granted by the 2020 decision in the meantime.

“Today’s action reflects careful consideration of their concerns and our commitment to ensuring robust consultation on all policy deliberations affecting Tribal nations,” Assistant Administrator for International and Tribal Affairs Jane Nishida said in a statement. “EPA appreciates the invaluable input we received from Oklahoma Tribes this year and looks forward to continuing dialogue with all parties to inform an effective and durable framework for environmental protection within Indian country.”

The initial EPA decision was widely criticized by tribal leaders, who said it ignored pre-existing relationships between state and tribal leaders. The agency itself noted in 2020 that tribal sources it consulted frequently raised concerns about sovereignty.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. praised the latest decision in a statement Wednesday evening.

“All Oklahomans benefit when we can work together in the spirit of mutual respect. Tribal nations such as the Cherokee Nation have been good stewards of our land, water and other natural resources since time immemorial, but all Oklahomans, Native or otherwise, play an important role in protecting our environment,” he said.

“The agency’s action to review this important matter is a step in the right direction and I look forward to additional consultation with our federal partners and good-faith cooperation with state agencies,” he added. 

The majority of the state’s oil fields are located in its eastern regions, while its gas industry is largely situated in the state’s western portion. Tribes and the oil industry in particular have a contentious history in the state. In the early 20th century, several white men were convicted in connection with the so-called “Reign of Terror,” a series of murders of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma for their wealth from oil rights.

Updated at 7:32 p.m.

Tags Cherokee Nation Environmental Protection Agency Kevin Stitt Muscogee (Creek) Nation Oklahoma Osage Nation

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