Attorneys for the state of Oklahoma and the U.S. Department of Interior argued over which agency has the authority to regulate surface coal mining and reclamation programs on tribal reservations.
In May, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which is under the Dept. of Interior, issued a notice to Oklahoma that the state no longer had the authority to manage mining operations inside the boundaries of the Muscogee Nation.
The tribe’s reservation boundaries were reaffirmed in the landmark Supreme Court case McGirt v. Oklahoma last year, which ruled Oklahoma does not have jurisdiction to prosecute major crimes on federally recognized tribal lands.
“This really is an attempt by the Biden administration to construe the McGirt decision, which is a criminal law decision, to be a civil decision,” Oklahoma attorney general John O’Connor said. “The Biden administration is attempting to use McGirt take over Oklahoma’s control and regulations over its own surface mining.”
Oklahoma filed a legal challenge against the Dept. of Interior in July. U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Friot heard oral arguments Thursday.
Ryan Leonard, an attorney representing the state, said the state anticipates additional challenges to state authority beyond mining rights in the future.
“Broader challenges in the civil arena are gaining steam,” Leonard said. “Where do we draw the line?”
Attorneys for the federal government argued it assumed jurisdiction to Oklahoma’s mining regulations programs inside Muscogee Nation boundaries following the McGirt ruling.
Arwyn Carroll, an attorney for the Dept. of Interior, said “it would be unprecedented” for a state government to regulate mining on tribal land.
Friot asked for additional arguments to be submitted next week by both sides before he makes a ruling.