The Obama administration has canceled a long disputed oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, a few miles from Glacier National Park.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of the Interior sent a letter to Solenex LLC, informing the Louisiana company that its lease was canceled because it was improperly issued in the 1980s. The Interior said the lease was granted without full environmental review.
After Solenex’s lease was granted in the 80s, more than 70 appeals were filed before the company was given a permit to drill. Then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt halted Solenex from using that permit.
“It’s the West. You come west to cross the great plans and gradually you see this enormous alpine front, it looks like the Himalayas. It comes straight up out of nowhere. This huge fault thrust. It was really clear to me that it was a really important place ecologically and culturally to the Blackfeet Tribe.”
Recently, Solenex has fought in federal court to lift the suspension on the lease.
A federal judge overseeing Solenex’s case scolded the federal government for the long delay on this issue. On Wednesday, the judge told the Interior Department it had 24 hours to decide what to do, meaning either cancel the lease, or lift the suspension. In a statement released Thursday announcing the cancellation, current Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell said:
“Today’s actions honors Badger-Two Medicine’s rich cultural and natural resources and recognizes the irreparable impacts that oil and gas development would have on them.”
The decision to cancel was good news to Blackfeet Tribe Historic Preservation Officer John Murray. He says the Badger-Two Medicine is too sacred to drill.
“Blackfoot, the way we look at the universe is that it is all interrelated. And the earth plays such an important role. It’s alive. It’s a spirit.”
The Badger-Two Medicine is adjacent to the Blackfeet Tribe's southern reservation border. The land was once a part of the reservation, until it was ceded to the federal government in 1896. Murray says the land is physical symbol of the his people’s culture. It is a place of ceremony and it’s an important place for young Blackfeet people to learn about their history.
“Through ceremonies we were able to revive that, and so I see that the Badger-Two Medicine will play a very important role in that segment of learning.”
While the Blackfeet Tribe and conservation groups around Montana celebrate the lease cancellation, Earthjustice attorney Aurora Janke says there is still more work to do to protect the Badger-Two Medicine.
“There are still other leases in the Badger-Two Medicine. And to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area in the long term those leases need to be dealt with.”
Eighteen oil and gas development leases remain in the Badger-Two Medicine. Congressional legislation prevents future oil and gas leasing within the Badger-Two Medicine, and any lease sold or let go would never be re-issued. But Solenex may challenge the Interior Department’s authority to take back a lease it issued.
Solenex’s lawyers were not available for comment at the time this story aired. In a past interview with Montana Public Radio, attorney William Perry Pendley said this about the announcement by the Interior that it was considering a cancellation of the lease.
“Obviously it is a disappointment, we’ve made very clear that we believe the federal government has zero legal authority to cancel the lease.”
Solenex has said it has a right to drill and that drilling could produce energy that could benefit Montana’s economy.
Solenex has not yet filed an official response to the Interior Department’s decision to void its 6,200 acre lease. In the letter the Interior Department sent to Solenex Thursday morning, it says the company is entitled to a refund of lease payments of $30,000 dollars.
Correction: This story has been corrected to say there are 18 remaining leases in the Badger-Two Medicine. The original broadcast of this story said there were more than 40 leases remaining.