The Obama administration has cancelled a disputed oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area near Glacier National Park.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced Thursday the Bureau of Land Management has cancelled a 6,200-acre lease in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The lease, currently held by Solenex LLC, was issued by the BLM in 1982 on land considered sacred to the Blackfeet tribes of the U.S. and Canada.
The cancellation is expected to be challenged in federal court by Solenex, a Louisiana company seeking to drill for oil and gas.
“Today the Blackfeet People have reason to rejoice,” Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes said in a statement, adding, “This fight has been about more that the Blackfeet. All of Montana and our country win. This pristine area so special to us and special to all who fight in this fight.”
The BLM concluded the lease was improperly issued in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historical Preservation Act. The agency consulted with the U.S. Forest Service, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Blackfeet Tribe, leaseholder and others, according to federal officials.
The Interior Department and BLM decided that the pending application for permit to drill should be disapproved, the lease cancelled and any applicable lease payments refunded, based on findings and recommendations from the Forest Service and the Advisory Council, according to federal officials.
“This is the right action to take on behalf of current and future generations,” Jewell said. “Today’s action honors Badger-Two Medicine’s rich cultural and natural resources and recognizes the irreparable impacts that oil and gas development would have on them.”
Solenex sued the government in 2013 to force a decision after the dispute dragged on for decades. Attorneys for the company said they would challenge any cancellation in court. They point out that the lease went through multiple environmental reviews over the years and was never said to be invalid until recently.
“I can’t even imagine how many thousands of man-hours went into all these studies, and now the government is saying every one of these people was wrong,” said William Perry Pendley with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the law firm for Solenex. “It doesn’t even pass the red-face test. It’s ridiculous.”
The Badger-Two Medicine Area is a 130,000-acre area along the Rocky Mountain Front. Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation surround the area, which is considered sacred by the Blackfeet Tribe and is part of a recognized Traditional Cultural District. Congress legislatively withdrew the area from mineral development in 2006.
Left unresolved is the fate of 17 remaining leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area, site of the Blackfoot creation story. Blackfoot leaders say the leases were illegally issued in 1982. Dozens more oil and gas leases were originally sold in the area. Over the years, most were retired or surrendered by their owners.
Most of the 17 remaining leases in the area are held by Devon Energy of Oklahoma, federal officials said.
All of the originally issued leases in the area, including the one being canceled today, have been the subject of a variety of administrative, legal and legislative actions since they were issued over 30 years ago because of the significance of the resources in the Badger-Two Medicine Area and concerns about the circumstances surrounding leasing issuance.
Drilling has been mired in repeated bureaucratic delays, prompting Solenex to sue the government in 2013.
A federal judge accused the Obama administration of trying to “run the clock out” on a pending decision on an oil and gas lease near Glacier National Park that’s been held up for several decades.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon on Wednesday gave the Interior Department 24 hours to act on the matter.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has long been a proponent of canceling the leases and hailed the decision on Thursday.
“The Badger-Two Medicine has unique cultural, historical, spiritual, and recreational significance to the Blackfeet Nation and outdoor enthusiasts in Montana,” he stated. “For generations Blackfeet families and outdoorsmen have enjoyed this treasured place and today’s decision will help ensure that this area remains pristine for years to come. There are special places in this world where we just shouldn’t drill, and the Badger-Two Medicine is one of them.”
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, echoed Tester’s praise.
“The Secretary’s decision today is a step in the right direction towards preserving the cultural identity of the Blackfeet people and land that is sacred to their Tribe,” Bullock stated.
A spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said in a statement, “While it’s unfortunate that the oil and gas leases were cancelled, Senator Daines understands the importance of protecting the unique heritage of the Badger-Two Medicine area.”
U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., said in a statement, “While I understand and respect the cultural and spiritual significance of the Badger-Two to the Blackfeet, our government made an agreement in good faith with the lease holders. At the very least, this is a breach of contract and I believe the lease holders should be fairly compensated for their losses.”
Full statement from Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council
“Today the Blackfeet People have reason to rejoice. Today the U.S. Department of Interior has filed action in Federal Court to start the process of bringing justice to the Blackfeet People. The oil and gas leases granted to Solonex are now being canceled by the Department of Interior. We want to thank the Interior Secretary Sally Jewel and Undersecretary Mike Connor for taking this long overdue action. The Blackfeet Nation has been fighting this battle since 1982 being led by Chief Earl Old Person. Today, Tyson Running Wolf, Joe McKay, John Murray, and other tribal members have taken up the fight. Throughout this fight, Senator Jon Tester has been at our side taking a courageous stand. This fight has been about more that the Blackfeet. All of Montana and our country win. This pristine area so special to us and special to all who fight in this fight.”