BILLINGS — A Louisiana company challenged the cancellation of an oil and gas lease in northwest Montana on Friday, after federal officials said drilling would disturb an area sacred to the Blackfoot tribes of the U.S. and Canada.
The 6,200-acre lease owned by Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge is in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. It’s just outside Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Attorneys for the company want U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C., to reject the Interior Department’s March 17 cancellation of the lease.
Leon has been sympathetic to Solenex’s arguments in prior court hearings, lambasting officials for decades of bureaucratic delays since the lease was issued in 1982. It was suspended because of a legal challenge in 1985, and the issue had remained unresolved ever since.
Solenex sued the government seeking to lift the suspension in 2013.
The lease is within a 165,000-acre area deemed by the government to be a Traditional Cultural District of the Blackfoot tribes. It’s the site of the creation story for the Blackfoot tribes of southern Canada and the Blackfeet Nation of Montana.
Attorneys for Solenex say the establishment of the cultural district was simply a pretext to deny the company its right to drill.
“For 33 years, (the Interior Department) affirmatively represented — through their actions, statements, documents — that the lease was valid and properly issued,” Solenex attorney Steven Lechner wrote in a Friday court filing.
He added that the cancellation was done out of spite in response to prior rulings from Leon favorable to the company.
Interior officials contend the lease was improperly issued in part because environmental studies did not consider the effects of drilling on the tribes. Spokeswoman Amanda Degroff said the agency would not comment Friday on the pending litigation.