BILLINGS — A federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday over whether a Louisiana company should be allowed to drill for natural gas on a longstanding lease near Glacier National Park that’s on land considered sacred to the Blackfeet Indians.
The 6,200-acre lease was suspended by federal officials in the 1990s along with dozens of others in the Badger-Two Medicine area south of Glacier.
Owner Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, filed a 2013 lawsuit to lift the suspension on the lease issued in 1982. The company wants U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C., to decide the case so it can drill this summer.
“We’ve been stopped for 32 years. We have a valid permit, and our client has the right to go and drill,” said William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which is representing Solenex. “Are there artifacts out there that we need to be protective of? Show us where they are, and we’ll mitigate.”
Tribal leaders have asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to cancel the lease and 17 others that remain suspended. They have offered Solenex the opportunity to drill elsewhere on the northwest Montana reservation, but “the Blackfeet tribe will not accept drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine,” Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray said.
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 the Blackfeet Reservation.
The U.S. Forest Service in December determined drilling would adversely affect the sacred site and reduce its spiritual power for the Blackfeet. Forest Service spokesman Dave Cunningham said that finding by an agency archaeologist was supported by representatives of the tribe and the Montana State Historic Preservation Office.
Representatives of Solenex in April met with members of the tribe, state and federal officials and the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in an attempt to resolve the dispute, according to court documents filed in the case. No agreements were reached.
If drilling doesn’t commence by August, Solenex must wait another year to begin the work because of restrictions on when it can drill, according to the company’s attorneys.