Judge Hears Final Arguments in Badger-Two Medicine Case

Legal challenge to determine fate of oil and gas lease cancellations moves forward in federal court

By Tristan Scott
The Badger Two Medicine area near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and Glacier National Park. Tristan Scott | Flathead Beacon

Blackfeet tribal leaders embarked on yet another pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. on March 14 as part of their years-long effort to furnish protections on the Badger-Two Medicine region and permanently remove the last remaining oil and gas leases remaining in the area.

At stake in the federal court battle is whether to uphold the Interior Department’s 2016 decision to cancel oil and gas leases in the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area, a culturally and ecologically sacred region to the tribe. The area is a federally recognized Traditional Cultural District along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Set within the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, the area is bordered by Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell canceled the oil and gas lease formerly held by the Louisiana-based Solenex, LLC, in the Hall Creek area of the Badger-Two Medicine region in March 2016. Government officials concluded the lease was issued in violation of federal laws designed to protect environmental and cultural resources on federal public lands, and found there was a lack of consultation with tribal officials prior to the issuance of the lease.

Solenex then filed a lawsuit in federal court appealing the lease-cancellation decision, arguing the federal government lacks the statutory and regulatory authority to rescind them because the leases were legally issued.

The future of the Badger-Two Medicine has been in legal limbo since.

The March 14 hearing centered on opposing motions for summary judgment, which would resolve the dispute.

Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden and Ruth Ann Storey, of the U.S. Department of Justice, served as counsel for the federal defendants.

Tim Preso, attorney for Earthjustice, argued on behalf of the Pikuni Traditionalist Association, Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, Montana Wilderness Association, National Parks Conservation Association, and The Wilderness Society, who are listed as defendant-interveners in the case.

“There is no dispute that the Secretary has authority to administratively cancel invalid leases,” according to the defense.

Tyson Running Wolf, secretary of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, and John Murray, tribal historic preservation officer, attended the hearing on behalf of the tribe.

The Denver-based property rights organization Mountain States Legal Foundation represented Solenex, and Steven J. Lechner delivered arguments on behalf of the company, saying Jewell’s decision to cancel the company’s 33-year-old lease and disapprove its application for a permit to drill should be held unlawful and set aside.

Presiding over the hearing, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon heard attorneys debate the lawfulness of the Interior Department’s lease-cancellation decision. The Interior Department and the tribal and conservation groups represented by Earthjustice argue that the lease was invalidly issued in violation of federal law, that the Interior Department acted lawfully in canceling the lease and that the lease-cancellation decision should be upheld.

Attorneys on both sides say that a decision in the case is still months away.

In a separate but related case, a prominent Texas oilman has sued the federal government alleging that it illegally canceled his oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine region. The lawsuit filed by W.A. Moncrief names as defendants the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Montana-Dakotas Office of the Bureau of Land Management.

Like the Solenex case, the Moncrief suit came on the heels of the Obama administration’s historic decision 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.

Devon Energy voluntarily relinquished its 15 leases in the Badger-Two Medicine, but Moncrief and Solenex have been determined to challenge the lease cancellations.

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