Leaders of the Five Tribes — and anybody who cares about clean air and water — should contest the state's effort to extend its authority to regulate environmental issues across areas of Oklahoma that could be considered reservation land.
Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment Kenneth Wagner made the the request as officials try and sort out the potential impact of the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma. Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, determined Congress had not disestablished the reservation granted by treaty in the 1830s to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
While the outcome was focused narrowly on federal criminal law, there has been much discussion about how the ruling might impact civil and regulatory issues for all Five Tribes forced to abandon ancestral lands east of the Mississippi River and relocate to eastern Oklahoma. Attorney General Mike Hunter rolled out a purported agreement in principle that leaders of two of the Five Tribes quickly distanced themselves from, and Gov. Kevin Stitt formed a commission to study the issue but appointed nobody affiliated with the tribes.
Wagner quickly stepped in with his request, asking U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow the state to regulate environmental laws pursuant to the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005. He told The Oklahoman it would "maintain the status quo" and it should be no "surprise to the tribes" because "they are aware of it."
That may be true now, but it certainly was a surprise when U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe slipped what became known as the "midnight rider" into that bill before it was passed during the dead of night. The provision stripped tribes — and only tribes in Oklahoma — of any authority to regulate environmental matters within their jurisdictional boundaries.
Inhofe, who is trying to win another six-year term in the U.S. Senate, attached the rider several months after the Pawnee Tribe's application to administer certain environmental programs on trust land won EPA approval. Inhofe, who was chairman of the Senate Transportation Public Works Committee at the time, bypassed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the opportunity for debate.
State regulators have proved since then they have little, if any, desire to enforce existing environmental laws, siding with corporate interests rather than those they harm. State regulators appear even less motivated when it comes to closing the loopholes that allow polluters to foul the soil, air and water.
The governor has demonstrated his disregard for the sovereign rights of our Native neighbors. His agency appointees have ignored the pleas of hard-working Oklahomans who are sick — literally and figuratively — of surviving in an environmentally unsustainable world.
There is no reason federal law should single out Oklahoma tribes for exclusion from regulating environmental issues within their jurisdictional boundaries. Targeting one group for the exclusion of anything is wrong.