The United States Department of the Interior has announced a negotiated settlement with an energy company that cancels 15 of the remaining oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area just east of Glacier National Park.
“Sorry it took so long to get to this point,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Jewell apologized to the Blackfeet Nation for the federal government’s delay in removing the leases granted in the 1980s.
She says the leases in the Lewis and Clark National Forest should never have been granted.
“It is both spectacular, but more importantly it is a sacred site and very important to the culture and values and the story of the Blackfeet Nation and its people since time immemorial,” Jewell said.
The secretary invited members of the Blackfeet Tribe to join her in Washington, D.C. for the lease cancellation announcement.
Chief Earl Old Person began the ceremony with a prayer. Then began singing a song he called "Coming Together."
Old Person also addressed those assembled for the ceremony at Interior Department headquarters.
“Of all the things we are confronted with, all the things that are happening today, we don't know where we are going from here on," Old Person said. "But we can still be strong when we call upon our creator. We can still be strong making a stand as leaders for our people. And so today, I’m glad that I could be here and be part of this ceremony.”
Over the past decade the Blackfeet Tribe has campaigned for the cancellation of all energy development leases in the Badger-Two Medicine. They asked leaseholders to give up the exploration and development rights because of the land’s significance to the Tribe.
The Badger-Two Medicine is adjacent to the Blackfeet Reservation to the south. The 130,000 acre area is the site of Blackfeet creation stories.
Most of the remaining leases were held by Fortune 500 company Devon Energy. The Oklahoma company agreed to release their 15 holdings for a cash refund of about $200,000.
At the ceremony, Devon Energy CEO David Hager said there are times and places when the right thing to do is to not drill.
“And one of the core values that we have is to be a good neighbor," Hager said. "And we certainly think this is a great opportunity to demonstrate that we can be a good neighbor in this situation.”
Hager also mentioned that Devon was not the original owner of the leases. He said they acquired them years ago in a merger with another company.
“We looked at this and said, ‘this is the right thing to do,’ in this situation. So, we are happy today to be here, to celebrate this event. It truly is a win-win type situation,” Hager said.
In March, the Interior Department canceled one other long disputed oil and gas lease in the area. The Louisiana leaseholder is fighting that in federal court, and says it still wants to drill on the land.
Besides that disputed lease, now only two other oil and gas leases from the Reagan era remain in the Badger-Two Medicine.
Federal officials are trying to track down those remaining leaseholders.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says the cancellations are a sign of the federal government's changing approach to land management.
“It should not have been leased to begin with. It did not follow procedures that we follow today," Jewell said.
"And I just want to say that there are painful lessons from the past. There are certainly painful lessons the Blackfeet Nation has had to fight. Painful lessons that their partners in the region and in the environmental community have been helpful in doing, painful lessons that land managers in the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have learned from that have really changed the nature of the way we lease for oil and gas, the way we understand our landscapes in a more holistic fashion. So that we respect that it is important to know the highest and best use of these landscape,” Jewell said.
Secretary Jewell has just over 60 days left in her office before the transition to the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes says the tribe does not universally oppose oil and gas drilling. But they are opposed to development on sacred sites.
Barnes says the timing of Interior's announcement may have something to do with some heat the Obama Administration is taking on protests happening a few hundred miles east of the Badger-Two Medicine.
“I think, and I don't know, I can’t read the secretary’s mind. But I think this is a result of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Shortly after that the Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, the Corps of Engineers came out with a joint statement. And I can’t quote it for you, but I can give you gist of it - hey, this ain’t working. How do we find a better way to consult with the aboriginal people that inhabited this area for millennium,” Barnes said.
Secretary Jewell did not mention the Dakota Access Pipeline during her comments. Interior had made its intentions to cancel the Badger-Two Medicine leases known earlier this year, before protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline erupted.
Congressional legislation prevents future leasing within the Badger-Two Medicine.