BILLINGS — A federal judge accused the Obama administration of trying to “run the clock out” on a pending decision on an oil and gas lease near Glacier National Park that’s been held up for several decades.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon on Wednesday gave the Interior Department 24 hours to act on the matter. The 6,200-acre lease is in Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine area, considered sacred by the Blackfoot tribes of the U.S. and Canada.
The Interior Department said in November it intends to cancel the lease, but it has yet to follow through. Lease owner Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, wants to drill for gas on the site and says its 1982 lease remains valid.
The company sued in 2013 to challenge a longstanding suspension of the lease.
Leon has repeatedly expressed frustration in recent months over the government’s handling of the case. On Wednesday, he accused Justice Department attorney Ruth Storey of acting “silly” when she suggested the latest delay was out of deference to the court, according to a transcript of a Wednesday hearing in federal court in Washington D.C.
“It’s pretty clear what’s been going on at the government. They’re running the clock out,” Leon said. “They want to get through this administration …. obviously the time has come for a court, some federal court somewhere to say enough’s enough.”
Leon, who was nominated to the federal bench by former President George W. Bush, is perhaps best known for challenging the government’s National Security Agency phone records collection program.
He rejected a request from Storey to give the government more time to act.
Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle declined comment following Wednesday’s hearing.
The Solenex lease is on the site of the creation story for the Blackfoot tribes of southern Canada and the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. It’s located just west of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation within the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Dozens more oil and gas leases were originally sold in the area. Over the years, most were retired or surrendered by their owners. But 18 remain, most of them held by Devon Energy of Oklahoma, according to federal officials.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recommended canceling all the leases in an Oct. 30 letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. However, the case before Leon concerns only the Solenex lease, and federal officials have not revealed what they intend to do with the remaining leases covering roughly 34,000 acres.