PAWNEE, Okla. (CN) — The Pawnee Nation sued two oil drillers in tribal court Friday, claiming their fracking caused earthquakes that damaged historic tribal buildings.
The Pawnee Nation sued Cummings Oil Co., of Oklahoma City, and Eagle Road Oil, of Tulsa, in Pawnee Nation District Court.
It’s the first earthquake-related property damage suit to be filed in a tribal court, according to the plaintiff’s attorneys.
The Pawnee claim that wastewater injected into defendants’ wells caused a 5.8-magnitude earthquake last September that damaged tribal buildings, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Plaintiff’s attorney Curt Marshall, with Weitz & Luxenberg in New York City, told reporters on Friday that the earthquake was the biggest in Oklahoma’s history, and that it was caused by injecting fracking wastewater into the ground.
“There have been subsequent quakes since then and every time there are new cracks and new damage to the nation’s buildings,” Marshall said at a news conference. “We are here to hold the energy companies accountable and to vindicate the rights of the nation.”
Pawnee Nation CEO Andrew Knife Chief said the nation “knows the earthquakes are manmade,” that it has tried for months “to get our voices heard” about them. He said the September quake showed that “time is not on our side.”
“All the indications are that the earthquakes are not going away,” he said. “This is the new reality in Oklahoma. For us as a nation, we have already been displaced from our homeland in Nebraska; our home is now here in Oklahoma and has been since the 1870s. With the damage of our buildings, it is too high a price to bear.”
Knife Chief said the tribe “has nowhere else to go,” resulting in the lawsuit in the sovereign nation’s tribal court.
“We are a nation of laws, and we always have been,” he said. “We have a constitution, we have a court system. All we are asking for is our day in court to highlight our arguments and hopefully the courts will render a fair and impartial decision and we can move on.”
Plaintiff’s attorney Scott Poynter, of Little Rock, Arkansas, commended the Pawnee for “taking the lead on earthquake and pollution litigation” of this kind.
“It provides a good ‘oomph’ to the other earthquake litigation cases in Oklahoma,” Poynter said. “The energy that is going to be provided by the Pawnee Nation is going to help move all the cases forward, I think.”
Tribal courts in the United States have limited jurisdiction over nontribal members. In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544, that tribes can exercise civil authority over nontribal members when their conduct “threatens or has some direct affect on the political integrity, economic security or the health or welfare of the tribe.”
If the case proceeds to trial, it will be heard by a jury of Pawnee Nation members. A jury verdict can be appealed to the five-member Pawnee Nation Supreme Court, whose ruling is final.
The Pawnee Nation has about 3,200 enrolled members, based in Pawnee, in north central Oklahoma.