Tulsa Judge Rules Against Pawnee Nation in BIA Oil Drilling Leases

Tulsa U.S. District Court Judge James Payne handed a setback this month to the Pawnee Nation in an oil and gas development fight with the Interior Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

He ruled against many of the arguments the tribe had made against BIA approved oil and gas developments it contended resulted in damaging earthquakes. The most significant of the quakes was a 5.8 magnitude earthquake last year and it led to the lawsuit filed by the 3,200-member tribe.

The lawsuit challenged the government’s approval of 17 leases in the Cimarron River Valley, arguing the tribe had not received adequate notice. But Judge Payne said the Pawnee Nation had not exhausted its administrative remedies as laid out in statute.

“Plaintiffs have failed to exhaust administrative remedies and the Court lacks jurisdiction over those claims,” wrote the Judge. “The BIA’s exhaustion requirement is a jurisdictional prerequisite to judicial review. It cannot be waived by the Court and it cannot be excused for equitable reasons as Plaintiffs suggest.”

The judge also dismissed other allegations in the lawsuit “for lack of jurisdiction to the extent that they raise challenges to the approval of the seventeen Pawnee leases.” One of the claims had been made under the American Indian Agricultural Resources Management Act.

However, the dismissal doesn’t mean an end to the Pawnee Nation’s fight of the drilling permits. It plans to press forward under the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and an executive order addressing development in floodplains.

“We look forward to holding the Interior Department accountable for ignoring the commitments it made to the Pawnee and for repeatedly violating federal laws,” said Mike Freeman, an attorney Earthjustice, the legal environmental group helping the tribe in the lawsuit.


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