Texas Oilman Challenges Cancellation of Badger-Two Medicine Lease

Lawsuit contends that oil and gas lease on land sacred to Blackfeet Tribe was illegally canceled

By Tristan Scott
The Badger-Two Medicine area near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Beacon File Photo

A prominent Texas oilman has filed a lawsuit against the federal government alleging it illegally canceled his oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine region near Glacier National Park and is seeking to reinstate his right to extract mineral resources in an area considered culturally sacred by the Blackfeet Tribe.

The lawsuit, filed April 3 in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, names as plaintiff the billionaire oilman W.A. Moncrief Jr., president of one of the nation’s largest family-owned oil and gas businesses. It names as defendants the U.S. Department of the Interior and Jamie Connell, state director of the Montana-Dakotas Office of the Bureau of Land Management.

The legal dispute comes on the heels of the Obama administration’s historic decision in January to cancel the final two remaining leases on the Badger-Two Medicine, marking a hard-fought victory for members of the Blackfeet Nation who have worked to jettison a host of energy leases from their sacred homeland for three decades.

In November, former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that Devon Energy had voluntarily agreed to the cancellation of its 15 leases in the Badger-Two Medicine region, while another company, Solenex LLC, is fighting the Interior’s earlier cancellation of its leases in the same area.

The Solenex lawsuit has been fully briefed and awaits a decision by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, who will also consider the Moncrief case, the legal argument for which dovetails with that made by Solenex.

Moncrief contends that the Interior Department canceled its lease suddenly and without “giving Moncrief an opportunity to contest the lease cancellation and protect its property rights,” according to the lawsuit. It says no advance notice was given to the company.

In canceling the lease, the Interior Department said it was improperly issued and that surface-disturbing activities are incompatible with the natural and cultural resources that define the Badger-Two Medicine area.

However, Moncrief said the Blackfeet Tribe has a prior history of oil and gas drilling activities in the area that are out of step with claims that the area is culturally sacred.

According to Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes, the tribe made every effort to offer Moncrief compensation for the lease cancellation, but the company “declined myriad offers … to negotiate a solution.”

He said the tribe has never sought to industrialize the Badger-Two Medicine, and that while the Blackfeet Nation is not against oil and gas development, “we have always been and will always be against oil and gas development in our most sacred places.”

“[Moncrief] refused to join the vast majority of companies who exited the Badger-Two Medicine on good terms and they forced cancellation as a last resort by their aggressive litigation and refusal to consult and cooperate,” Barnes said. “They have taken a radical position, and so have forced an outcome no one wanted.”

The Badger-Two Medicine area encompasses roughly 130,000 acres and is bordered by Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness area and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. It is considered a critical ecological corridor as well as the birthplace of Blackfeet creation stories.

Located on public land set in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, the area was leased for natural resource extraction amid controversy and without tribal consultation in the early 1980s.

The tribe has been fighting to have the leases relinquished ever since.

Barnes said that for Moncrief to suggest that the lease cancellation was a last-minute decision is “preposterous.”

“The leases have been strongly contested for more than three decades,” Barnes said. “During that time, companies have been offered tax credits, cash offers, land swaps, leases in other areas, and, in the cases of Mr. Moncrief, even pre-drilled wells in other portions of the Blackfeet Reservation.”

As the cases make their way through the federal court, a new administration has changed the makeup of the Interior Department at the center of the lawsuit, worrying conservation leaders who have worked in concert with the Blackfeet to terminate the leases.

Aurora Janke, an attorney with EarthJustice representing a coalition of environmental groups, said she hopes the new administration and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a native of Whitefish, will stand by the lease cancellations.

“We are hopeful that Secretary Zinke will defend this action because it is a very important action,” Janke said.

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