BILLINGS — A federal judge ordered the U.S. government to speed up its consideration of a long-stalled drilling proposal near Glacier National Park and said he won’t tolerate further delay caused by “bureaucratic gobbledygook.”
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said the Interior Department must move more quickly to cancel the energy lease at issue or lift a suspension so drilling can begin next year. The 6,200-acre lease covers land considered sacred to the Blackfoot American Indian tribes of the U.S. and Canada.
Federal officials issued the lease to Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge in 1982. The Forest Service in 1996 asked for it to be suspended so the agency could perform a historic preservation survey, a process that dragged on for almost two decades.
Solenex sued over the delay in 2013. After Leon in June expressed his frustration with the case and pressed for a resolution, government attorneys responded in recent court filings that lifting the suspension could trigger another round of environmental reviews and push back drilling to 2017.
“Let me clue you in on something: Two years is not accelerated,” Leon told Justice Department attorney Ruth Storey, according to a transcript of a Tuesday hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. “I am not going to sit by and allow this, after (three decades) of bureaucratic gobbledygook, to be just extended out indefinitely.”
Leon said in a subsequent written order that the leases need to be canceled or the suspension lifted.
Leaders of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana contend U.S. officials illegally issued the lease in northwest Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine area, considered a spiritual homeland among tribal members. Last month, a federal historic preservation panel recommended cancellation.
Dozens of oil and gas leases were originally sold in the area. Over the years most have been retired or surrendered and only 18 suspended leases remain, including Solenex’s. Fifteen of the leases are held by Oklahoma-based Devon Energy.
“The bottom line is, they need to make a decision,” said William Perry Pendley with Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Lakewood, Colorado law firm representing Solenex.
Devon Energy’s executive vice president, Lyndon Taylor, is listed as a board member of Solenex’s law firm. Pendley has said the company has no connection to the lawsuit.
John Murray, tribal historic preservation officer for the Blackfeet, said it was wrong to view Solenex as the sole victim of any bureaucratic ineptitude.
“Several of our elders have passed away waiting for this” to be resolved, Murray said. “We have been waiting just as long.”
He added that a lease cancellation was “the only way to go.”
Leon ordered the government to notify the court by November 23 of its decision on whether to initiate the process for canceling the lease or lift the drilling suspension. If officials don’t comply, Leon said he could issue an order lifting the suspension.
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