A lengthy legal fight over an oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area near Glacier National Park continued Tuesday in federal court. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. heard arguments over the U.S. Interior Secretary’s authority to cancel the lease.
Former U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in 2016 canceled the last two remaining oil and gas leases in the disputed area near the Rocky Mountain Front. Moncrief Oil and Solenex LLC took the Interior Department to court arguing that the agency couldn’t suddenly change its mind.
A U.S. District court agreed but Moncrief later dropped its case after reaching a settlement with environmental groups. Solenex is still arguing its case in court.
Tim Presso with EarthJustice is representing the Blackfeet Nation and environmental groups intervening in the case.
“The challenged lease cancelation decision protects an area that the Blackfeet Tribe has described as its last traditional sacred territory. It’s an area that offers important habitat for grizzly bears, elk and moose and numerous of species" said Presso.
He backed the Interior Department’s argument that the government had the right to cancel the oil and gas leases because they violated environmental and federal cultural protections.
Presso says Solenex was offered reimbursement for its lease payments and has other ways to seek damages from the federal government. “There’s no way to write a check for the critical, cultural, environmental values of this area. Those have to be preserved.”
Solenex attorney David McDonald told justices that the Interior Secretary lacked authority to overturn the lease decades after it was approved. “Because whatever authority agencies may have to reconsider their decisions, that authority must be exercised within a reasonable period of time,” said McDonald.
However, justices questioned McDonald about the Interior Department’s reluctance to approve drilling on Solenex’s lease because it was still determining if that activity would violate federal law.
McDonald argued the decision to deny its drilling permit request doesn’t void the underlying lease and future technology may be able to mitigate environmental and cultural harm in the area.
It’s unclear when the appellate court may hand down its decision.