US cancels oil and gas lease on Montana land sacred to tribe
Facing a 24-hour decision deadline, the U.S. Department of Interior has canceled energy exploration leases on the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area considered sacred by the Blackfeet Indian Tribe.
“After careful review of the record and consultation with the U.S. Forest Service, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Blackfeet Tribe, leaseholder, and others, the (Bureau of Land Management) concluded the Solonex lease was improperly issued in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historical Preservation Act,” Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw wrote in the Thursday morning announcement. “Based on those findings and recommendations from the Forest Service and the Advisory Council, the Interior Department and the BLM decided that the pending application for permit to drill should be disapproved, the lease canceled, and any applicable lease payments refunded.”
Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes thanked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for the decision, adding that it benefited more than just the tribe.
“All of Montana and our country win,” Barnes wrote Thursday. “This pristine area is so special to us and special who fight in this fight.”
Louisiana-based Solenex LLC leased 6,200 acres of the Badger-Two Medicine area in 1982, but never began drilling for oil or natural gas. Other court cases had ruled similar leases in the northern Rocky Mountains were also improperly granted, and many lease holders had voluntarily released their holdings or been bought out by congressional action.
But Solenex owner Sydney Longstreet opted to sue for a permit to use his leases in 2013. His lawyers maintained the leases had been through multiple reviews and should be allowed to proceed.
“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.”
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon accused the Obama administration of trying to “run the clock out” on the lease decision, and gave the Interior Department 24 hours to act on the matter.
During court proceedings last year, Leon frequently criticized the pace of government review of Solenex’s case, which was filed in 2013. While the Interior Department had announced its intention to cancel the Solenex leases last November, it only completed the action Thursday.
“I think that Interior did the right thing,” Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray said Thursday. “It doesn’t make sense to go and rape that territory and pollute the land and disrupt the ecosystem and the world view of the Blackfeet for an oil well. (Solenex owner) Sydney Longwell paid a dollar an acre for those leases. It makes sense for a man his age to finally have some moral responsibility for the earth that surrounds everything.”
The leases affected 6,200 acres of the 165,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area that’s surrounded by Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Murray said while other parts of the reservation have been opened to energy exploration and some have been producing oil since the 1920s, the Blackfeet have consistently tried to keep the Badger-Two Medicine area protected.
“The Badger-Two Medicine’s quality played a very important role in reforming of our culture,” Murray said. “It’s essential to our language, to the Blackfeet belief system and the way we look at the world. We’ve been experiencing a renaissance of our culture with the younger generation.”
In his 16-page official ruling, Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor said Solenex was entitled to a refund of $31,235 in lease payments made between May 20, 1982, and June 1, 1985. But Solenex was not entitled to any interest on that money and had exhausted its departmental appeal process.
“Available information shows that, at the time of lease issuance, BLM and USFS mistakenly assumed that NEPA and HNPA compliance did not require an analysis of surface disturbance caused by oil and gas activities prior to lease issuance,” Connor wrote. “The legal deficiencies with those assumptions were identified in litigation as early as 1985, and … could have been properly cured at that time.
“Based on those reviews and the administrative and congressional protections that have been put in place for the Badger-Two Medicine area since then, the BLM and the department have determined that surface disturbing activities are incompatible with the irreplaceable natural and cultural resources of the Badger-Two medicine area. Those resources must be safeguarded from all future oil and gas activities.”
“The Badger-Two Medicine has unique cultural, historical, spiritual, and recreational significance to the Blackfeet Nation and outdoor enthusiasts in Montana,” Sen. Jon Tester stated in an email. “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.”
Gov. Steve Bullock echoed the sentiment, writing “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.”
The Interior Department must still resolve the status of 17 more energy exploration leases covering about 34,000 acres in the Badger-Two Medicine area. The bulk of those lie in three leases owned by Devon Energy Corp.
While the agency recommended canceling all leases in the area, the case before Judge Leon applies only to the Solenex claims. Michael Jamison, spokesman for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the decision has implications for the remaining leaseholders.
“Sydney Longwell had the opportunity to get paid for those leases 10 years ago,” Jamison said. “He had another opportunity to get paid a year ago when he started negotiating with the government. And he had an opportunity to swap out those leases for other tribal lands on the reservation, but he turned down all those opportunities. My hope for the remaining acreage is we find a settlement that makes everyone whole. But if people refuse to come to the table, this is what it comes to.”