Federal Judge Reinstates Canceled Drilling Lease in Badger-Two Medicine

Blackfeet traditionalists, conservation groups vow to continue the fight to overturn the last remaining energy lease on sacred cultural ground

By Tristan Scott
Aerial views of the Badger Two Medicine area on July 14, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A federal judge on Friday reinstated the last remaining drilling lease on land in the Badger-Two Medicine region near the Blackfeet Reservation, renewing the threat of industrialization on lands held sacred to the tribe even as its cultural leaders pledge to continue their fight.

“It’s just more of the same from people who refuse to consult with the Blackfeet Nation about the industrialization of our last cultural refuge,” John Murray, the Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, said in a prepared statement. “We’ve lived under this kind of reckless threat to our sacred lands for decades, and we will never surrender to roads and drill rigs in the Badger-Two Medicine.”  

The long-disputed energy lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area flanking Glacier National Park was canceled in 2016 under then-U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court in 2020.

Other energy companies have voluntarily relinquished their leases in the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area, acknowledging that the leases were issued decades ago without sufficient input from tribal members who raised cultural concerns. However, the Louisiana-based oil and gas company with the last remaining lease, Solenex LLC, has continued its legal efforts to preserve the drilling rights, arguing in a lawsuit against the Interior Department that the federal agency exceeded its authority and the lease should be reinstated.

In his Sept. 9 opinion reinstating the Solenex lease, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon of Washington, D.C. chastened the federal agencies that first approved the lease in 1982, describing “a never-ending series of administrative reviews [that] have precluded any activity for nearly forty years.”

“How Kafkaesque!” Leon exclaimed in his ruling, concluding the Solenex lease was properly issued and therefore not subject to cancellation.

The judge rejected the federal government’s rationale for cancelling the Solenex lease and disagreed with the claims that drilling and roadbuilding in the Badger-Two Medicine would irrevocably harm the cultural and ecological values of the area, which is a designated Traditional Cultural District (TCD)

The 6,200-acre Solenex lease was one of many issued by the federal government in the early 1980s. Over the course of several decades, a majority of lease holders voluntarily relinquished their leases in recognition of the outstanding natural and cultural values of the area. In some cases, lease-holders sold their rights to third parties who then returned them to the federal government for permanent retirement. Finally, the Department of Interior cancelled the small number of leases remaining and issued orders to refund the leaseholder’s purchase price and expenses associated with their lease.  

Solenex remained the sole company still demanding to develop the area, and in 2013 filed a lawsuit to force the government to authorize roadbuilding and exploratory drilling.

“In 2016, after much litigation, I ordered the Government to render a final decision on Solenex’s application,” Leon wrote in his Sept. 9 opinion. “Amazingly, the Government responded by cancelling the underlying lease — the validity of which was not in dispute before this litigation arose — and disapproving the permit to drill. And now, six years and a trip to our Circuit Court later, I am finally in a position to address the merits of that decision.”

“It is time to put an end to this interminable, and insufferable, bureaucratic chess match,” Leon wrote in his opinion. “The Court finds that the Secretary lacked authority to rescind the Lease, and that the Secretary further acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner in disapproving the previously approved Application for Permit to Drill.”

According to Murray, who also leads the Pikuni Traditionalist Association, which was among the coalition of groups intervening to defend against the lawsuit brought by Solenex, the Blackfeet Nation and its rich cultural heritage should not be punished for a mistake made by the federal government decades ago.

“If our experience teaches us anything, it is that soon, someone will bring another fight to our doorstep. Someone always has another plan that will erode our cultural heritage,” Murray said. “Our Blackfeet Traditional Knowledge System is intact — thanks in large part to the Badger-Two Medicine — but it is in fragile condition. It cannot withstand additional pressure. It cannot withstand another fight.”

Peter Metcalf, executive director of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, noted that the struggle over the fate of the Solenex lease has included both disappointments and victories.

“We have had to overcome many setbacks throughout this nearly 40-year effort to prevent irresponsible energy development from these ecologically and culturally vital lands,” Metcalf said. “Yet despite the immense obstacles, we’ve managed to prevent any development and retire 46 other leases. The narrative is clearly trending toward protecting the Badger-Two Medicine and I’m confident we will ultimately eliminate this final lease too.”

Tyson Running Wolf, a Montana state legislator, former Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member, hunting outfitter and leader among Blackfeet traditionalists, said the Solenex executives and attorneys simply do not understand the importance of the Badger-Two Medicine to Blackfeet culture and lifeways.

“This is a place where original creation still lives,” Running Wolf said. “There are very few of those places left on this Earth. The stakes here go way beyond a couple years of profit for some oil company. This is our inheritance and legacy we’re talking about. This is about our cultural survival as Blackfeet People.”

The Badger-Two Medicine, Running Wolf said, will not be industrialized.

“This is more than land,” he said. “It’s an entire way of life, a path to a strong and healthy future.  Blackfeet will have a say in that future, regardless of today’s ruling. We’ve been here since time immemorial, and we’re not going anywhere.”

Pikuni Traditionalist Association and Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance were joined in defending the lawsuit by Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, Wild Montana (formerly Montana Wilderness Association), National Parks Conservation Association and The Wilderness Society.

Represented by Earthjustice, the coalition stated in a news release that it is considering all legal options. 

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