A federal judge has reinstated an oil and gas lease on land in northwestern Montana considered sacred to some Native American tribes.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C. ruled Monday that President Barack Obama's Interior Department improperly canceled the lease adjacent to Glacier National Park.
The nearly 10-square-mile lease was canceled in 2016. It is within the Badger Two-Medicine area of Lewis and Clark National Forest, the site of the creation story of Montana's Blackfeet Nation and the Blackfoot tribes of southern Canada.
Blackfeet leaders and conservation groups who fought for the 2016 cancellation have argued the area was illegally leased for oil and gas development in the early 1980s without tribal consultation and in violation of environmental laws.
Ryan Busse is the chair of the board of directors for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers which supported the 2016 cancellation.
“The cancellation would have undone an original wrong,” Busse says. “Obviously the lease was improperly let in the eighties, as were most of them, and most of the energy companies have already recognized that and have, very thoughtfully, given up their leases. We have a couple of kind of fringe stragglers here that are trying to make a case of it. And we believe the judge made the wrong decision here.”
Solenex LLC, based in Louisiana, holds the re-instated lease and says the Trump administration should let the company proceed with its drilling plans.
Solenex attorney William Perry Pendley argued that a failure to reverse the Obama administration decision would leave all oil and gas leases granted under Trump in danger of being ended under future presidents.
Government attorneys who had defended the Obama-era lease cancellation in court are reviewing Monday’s ruling.
“Over time I’m confident we’ll win, but it looks like we’re going to have to continue to fight,” Busse says.
The Badger-Two Medicine area is a federally-recognized Traditional Cultural District encompassing over 165 thousand acres along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front.
Congress in 2006 provided tax breaks and other incentives that prompted 29 leaseholders to relinquish their drilling rights. Fifteen leases in the area were given up voluntarily by Devon Energy in 2016, and the government canceled what had been the last two leases in the area last year.