HELENA — U.S. government officials plan to decide this fall whether to take steps to lift the suspension of an oil and gas lease on land sacred to Native Americans or to begin the four-month process of canceling it, according to court documents filed Monday.
The timeline for resolving the decades-old suspension of the lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area near Glacier National Park was created after a federal judge ordered the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to come up with a timeline to complete their review.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Solenex LLC sued to lift the suspension and begin drilling this summer on the 6,200-acre oil and gas lease it acquired in 1982. The suspension has been in place since 1993 while federal officials consider the environmental and cultural impacts.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon previously denied Solenex’s request to immediately lift the suspension, but he ordered the government to come up with a timeline to end the delay.
The schedule submitted by Department of Justice attorney Ruth Ann Storey calls for BLM to decide by Nov. 30 to take one of two directions. It could decide to cancel the lease, which would take until March 30 to complete, or it could decide to continue the process of lifting the suspension.
If it’s the latter, federal agencies would then have to decide whether additional environmental reviews are needed, which means the suspension would not be lifted until July 2017.
Steve Lechner, an attorney representing Solenex, called the schedule “ridiculous” and said he plans to ask the judge to require the government to complete its review by the end of the year.
“It just demonstrates more unlawful delay,” Lechner said. “This should be at the top of the pile, the top of the heap, the highest proposal.”
The Badger-Two Medicine area is considered the spiritual homeland of the Blackfeet. Indian tribes in Montana and Canada and environmental groups oppose lifting the suspension and contend the lease was illegally granted because the tribes were not consulted.
An attorney representing the groups said he was encouraged that canceling the lease outright is on the table.
“It’s significant the government for the first time acknowledges that lease cancellation is one of the options they will consider,” Tim Preso of Earthjustice said.
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