Last Lease on the Line

Interior, advocates for retiring energy leases in the Badger-Two Medicine set to deliver arguments before panel of D.C. circuit judges

By Tristan Scott
Sunset over the Badger-Two Medicine area. Beacon file photo

Last October, leaders of the Blackfeet Nation celebrated a major victory in their mission to furnish permanent protections on the Badger-Two Medicine area when Moncrief Oil relinquished an energy lease spanning more than 7,000 acres along the Rocky Mountain Front.

The news provided a capstone to a monumental effort by the Blackfeet and numerous other stakeholders determined to preserve one of the last best places and rid the region of the looming threat posed by energy holdings.

It also meant that one oil-and-gas leaseholder still remained in the Badger-Two Medicine area, a place held sacred by the Blackfeet and which provides habitat to a range of wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, wolverine, elk, and cutthroat trout. It serves as the headwaters of two drainages, Badger Creek and the South Fork Two Medicine River, which together water the reservation and the northern plains of Montana.

The final lease belongs to Solenex LLC, a Louisiana-based company whose 6,200-acre lease was canceled by the government in 2016, but reinstated in 2018 after a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C. ruled in favor of Solenex. The case is currently in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

On Jan. 21, a panel of judges will hear arguments by the Department of Interior and conservation advocates defending the lease cancellation, including a coalition of Blackfeet traditionalists called the Pikuni Traditionalist Association, as well as the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance and conservation partners who have long sought to protect the Badger-Two Medicine Area from industrial development.

It’s the latest turn in a labyrinthine legal fight that has twisted on for years as Blackfeet leaders and conservation groups have worked to permanently protect the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine, an area flanking Glacier National Park that holds cultural and ecological significance to members of the Blackfeet Nation.

The last two remaining leases were originally canceled by the Interior Department under President Barack Obama, but U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled last September that action was improper. Attorneys representing the Interior filed a notice of appeal challenging Judge Leon’s decision to reinstate the leases.

When Moncrief voluntarily relinquished its lease, only Solenex remained.

Following the Sept. 30 decision by Texas-based Moncrief Oil and Gas Master, LLC to retire its lease, company officials released a statement that the defenders of the Badger-Two Medicine hope resonates with Solenex — that the leaseholders took the region’s wild properties into consideration in reaching the deal.

“Moncrief Oil recognizes the value of wilderness areas and always endeavors to protect the wilderness and preserve the wildlife that lives in and roams these areas,” according to the statement. “Even though Moncrief Oil believes that this valuable oil and gas lease could have been developed while protecting and even benefiting the wilderness, the sensitivity to this special area outweighs development, and therefore has agreed to relinquishment of the lease to the federal government after the prior proper ruling by the court.”

The 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine is a federally recognized Traditional Cultural District that, in addition to providing critical wildlife habitat, also offers opportunities for hunting and backcountry recreation.

The area was originally leased for oil and gas exploration in the early 1980s over the objection of local citizens and without legally sufficient environmental review or consultation with the Blackfeet Nation, according to attorneys for the Pikuni Traditionalist Association. The retired 7,640-acre lease had been owned by the Texas-based Moncrief Oil and Gas Master since 1989. Its retirement continues a long trend of companies voluntarily relinquishing their leases in recognition of the area’s outstanding ecological and cultural heritage.

With only the litigation involving the Solenex lease ongoing, Blackfeet tribal leaders, state legislative representatives, conservationists, and legal counsel traveled to Washington, D.C. for the oral arguments scheduled to begin Jan. 21 at 7:30 a.m. Mountain Standard Time, after the Beacon went to print.

The oral arguments will take place in front of a panel of three judges reviewing the lower-court’s decision to reinstate the previously canceled Solenex lease.

Unlike every other company, Blackfeet leaders said, Solenex has so far shown no willingness to seek a fair, out-of-court settlement, but expressed confidence in the future of the Badger.

“We will see the last of the Badger-Two Medicine leases retired, and we will permanently protect our traditional lands,” John Murray, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Blackfeet Nation, said. “There are just some places that are too special, too important to drill and the Badger-Two Medicine is clearly one of them.”

How to watch: Follow the argument live online by visiting the court’s website at www.cadc.uscourts.gov. On the homepage, under Live Audio Streaming, a link will provide access to the live oral argument. If you experience problems connecting, please email [email protected] or call (202) 216-7440 for troubleshooting assistance.

In addition, the court maintains an archive of argument recordings. Recordings generally are available by 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the day of oral argument at: https://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/recordings/recordings.nsf/.

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