The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved a request from Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration to allow the state, not tribal nations, to regulate environmental issues in Indian Country, even those lands that may be inside historical tribal reservation boundaries.
Stitt, a Republican, requested the authority in July, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court determined that a large swath of eastern Oklahoma remains a Muscogee (Creek) Nation Indian reservation.
In the July 22 letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Stitt requested state authority to administer all EPA programs in areas of the state that are in Indian Country, with a few exceptions.
Wheeler approved the state's request in an Oct. 1 response. It applies to more than two dozen federal environmental programs overseen by several state agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Water Resources Board and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
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The federal law allowing states to seek environmental oversight in Indian Country was authored in 2005 by Oklahoma's Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, a staunch ally of the oil and gas industry.
“The underlying law is a one-section provision surreptitiously inserted as a midnight rider in the massive (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act) of 2005 that treats Oklahoma tribes differently than other tribes throughout the United States," the Muscogee (Creek) Nation said in a statement. “Like the SAFETEA Act itself, this was a swift move meant to circumvent the federal government's trust, duty and obligation to consult with the tribal nations concerned."
Stitt said in a statement Monday that he was pleased with the EPA's decision, saying it would help better protect the state's public health and environment “by ensuring certainty and one consistent set of regulations" for all citizens of Oklahoma, including tribal citizens.
“As Administrator Wheeler’s letter correctly points out, the State of Oklahoma did not seek to expand or increase its regulation over new areas of the state, but rather to continue to regulate those areas where the state has consistently implemented these environmental programs under the steady oversight of the U.S. EPA," Stitt said.
The decision drew a swift rebuke from other tribal leaders. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said he was disappointed that the EPA ignored his tribe's request to consult individually with the agency about the change.
“Unfortunately, the governor’s decision to invoke a 2005 federal law ignores the longstanding relationships between state agencies and the Cherokee Nation," Hoskin said in a statement. “All Oklahomans benefit when the Tribes and state work together in the spirit of mutual respect and this knee-jerk reaction to curtail tribal jurisdiction is not productive.”
Stitt, himself a Cherokee Nation citizen, has had a strained relationship with many of the tribal nations in Oklahoma over his attempt to seek a greater share of tribal casino revenue.
The EPA decision was particularly welcomed by the state's oil and gas industry, which was concerned that the Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma could ultimately lead to a patchwork of various tribal environmental regulations across the state, said Brook Simmons, president of the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma, an oil and gas industry trade group.
“This decision grants the state no more or no less authority than it had prior to the McGirt decision," Simmons said. “Since 1947, the state of Oklahoma has had primacy to regulate oil and gas operations in Indian Country. This does not have any new effect on that precedent."