Public hearing to be held on oil and gas drilling lease near Glacier

The Associated Press

A federal panel will hold a public hearing in Choteau next month on whether to allow oil and gas drilling on land near Glacier National Park that is considered sacred by Native American tribes.

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A federal panel will hold a public hearing in Choteau next month on whether to allow oil and gas drilling on land near Glacier National Park that is considered sacred by Native American tribes.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation's hearing will be on Sept. 2 to discuss the effects of lifting a decades-old suspension on a Louisiana company's drilling permit in the Badger-Two Medicine area.

The Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Solenex LLC has owned the 6,200-acre lease since 1982. The U.S. government suspended drilling on the lease in 1992 and has been considering the environmental and cultural impacts ever since.

The Blackfeet Indian Tribe and environmental groups are opposed to drilling on what is considered the Blackfeet's spiritual homeland. They argue the lease was illegally issued because the tribe was not consulted first.

The advisory council will provide comments to the U.S. Forest Service on the effects of drilling on historic properties in the area and how to avoid or minimize those effects. Previous consultations with the tribe and Solenex representatives ended in July when the sides could not reach an agreement.

The project involves building or reconstructing 6 miles of road, a temporary bridge across the Two Medicine River and a 4-acre drill pad, according to the announcement of the public hearing by the advisory council.

If the well is productive, then Solenex would likely apply for a permit to expand the drilling on the lease, the announcement said.

Solenex sued in 2013 to lift the suspension, and a federal judge ordered the government agencies involved in the process to write a timeline for ending their review.

The timeline submitted to the court begins with the Choteau hearing, which kicks off a public comment period that will lead to the council's submission of advisory comments to the U.S. Forest Service by Sept. 21.

After that, the Forest Service will make its recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management by the end of October. The BLM will then decide whether to pursue the path of lifting the suspension or begin the process of canceling the lease outright.

If the lease is canceled, the process is expected to take four months. The process to lift the suspension may involve a further environmental review that would push back drilling to 2017.

Solenex attorney Steve Lechner has said he will ask the judge to reject that schedule and order the government agencies to finish the process by the end of the year.

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