HELENA — A judge on Monday denied a Louisiana company’s request to lift the U.S. government’s decades-long suspension of an energy lease near Glacier National Park, but he called the delay unreasonable and ordered government officials to fast-track a decision.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon was incredulous that the matter has gone unresolved for so long.
“No combination of excuses could possibly justify such ineptitude or recalcitrance for such an epic period of time,” the judge wrote.
Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge is seeking to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine area, land that is considered sacred by the Blackfoot tribes of Montana and Canada. The company acquired the 6,200-acre oil and gas lease in 1982, and the lease was suspended in 1993.
Since then, a final decision has been held up while federal officials consider the potential environmental and cultural impacts. The company sued in 2013 to have the suspension lifted.
Leon stopped short of that demand, saying he wanted to avoid that level of direct judicial interference. However, he ordered the U.S. Interior Department, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and other government officials to come up with an “accelerated and fixed schedule” within 21 days to complete the review.
The schedule should list the tasks that still need to be completed and how long those tasks are expected to take, the judge said in his ruling.
Steve Lechner, an attorney for the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation representing Solenex, said it was disappointing that it takes a court order for the government to create such a schedule.
“They should have done that out of courtesy,” he said.
Blackfeet tribal Chairman Harry Barnes said the judge’s ruling should move the government to finally decide to cancel the lease.
“The tribe will never let any drilling go ahead,” Barnes said. “We’ve fought it for too long, and we’re going to continue to fight it.”
Dozens of oil and gas leases have been sold in the area, but over the years, most have been retired or surrendered. Only 18 suspended leases remain, including Solenex’s.
The federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation has previously said it needs until Sept. 21 recommend whether drilling would degrade the area’s significance to the Blackfoot tribes of Canada and Montana.