Judge demands explanation for lengthy delay on oil and gas lease

MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press
Copyright 2013, The Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge is pressing U.S. officials to explain why it's taken three decades to decide on a proposal to drill for natural gas just outside Glacier National Park in an area considered sacred by some Indian tribes in Montana and Canada.

A frustrated U.S. District Judge Richard Leon called the delay "troubling" and a "nightmare" during a recent court hearing. He ordered the Interior and Agriculture departments to report back to him with any other example of where they have "dragged their feet" for so long.

"This is no way to run a government. No way to run a government," Leon told government attorney Ruth Ann Storey, according to a transcript of the June 10 hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

At issue in the case is a 6,200-acre energy lease in northwest Montana's Badger-Two Medicine National Forest, immediately south of Glacier. Owned by Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the lease has been suspended since the 1990s.

Solenex, represented by the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation of Colorado, sued in 2013 to overturn the suspension. It wants to begin drilling for gas this summer.

The Badger-Two Medicine area is the home of the creation story of the four Blackfoot tribes in Canada and Montana and the Sun Dance that is central to their religion. The land is part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, but it is not on Montana's Blackfeet Reservation.

Blackfoot leaders have asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to cancel the leases.

The Interior Department issued the energy lease to Solenex in 1982, and the Forest Service in 1996 asked for it to be suspended so the agency could perform a historic preservation survey of the site. That was completed in 2012, but there's been no final decision on whether the lease should remain in place.

Mountain States Legal Foundation president William Perry Pendley noted that the boundaries of the traditional cultural area for the tribes had been studied and expanded several times since the leases were first issued.

"The feds have thrown money at the tribes and these consultants to do these additional studies," he said. "The bottom line is, this is National Forest land."

But Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray rejected any suggestion that the studies were a ploy to block Solenex. He said the Montana tribe opposed the leases from the time they were issued and considered the original cultural studies of the area inadequate.

"It's paramount that it's protected. Bad research does not negate the importance of the area to the Blackfeet," Murray said.

Dozens of oil and gas leases were originally sold in the area but over the years most have been retired or surrendered. Only 18 suspended leases remain, including the Solenex lease.

Storey defended the government's handling of the company's case in her appearance before Judge Leon. She said it took many years to conduct the necessary site studies, and working with the tribes meant the process was not entirely within the agencies' control.

The Forest Service in December determined drilling would adversely affect the sacred site and reduce its spiritual power for the Blackfeet.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in January agreed with the finding from a Forest Service archaeologist. Recommendations from the council on how to proceed are pending.

Forest Service spokesman Dave Cunningham said he was not aware of a timeline for a decision.

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