HELENA — A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday to cancel a long-disputed oil and gas lease on land in northwestern Montana considered sacred to Native American tribes in the United States and Canada.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overruled a judge's 2018 decision that had allowed a Louisiana company to keep its lease within the Badger Two-Medicine area of Lewis and Clark National Forest. However, the ruling leaves the company the option of returning to district court to make other arguments.
That area near Glacier National Park is the site of the creation story of the Blackfoot tribes of southern Canada and Montana's Blackfeet Nation. The 6,247-acre lease lies south of U.S. Highway 2 between East Glacier and Marias Pass, just outside the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
John Murray, the Blackfeet's tribal historic preservation officer, said the court's decision will close a "long and painful chapter in the history of our people."
"These leases should never have been issued in the first place," Murray said. "Today's ruling shows that these companies and their lawyers were not just on the wrong side of history but were also on the wrong side of the law when they waged their 40-year crusade to drill our ancestral land."
The Blackfeet Tribe was not a direct party in the lawsuit, Solenex v. Bernhardt, although it did file briefs stating its cultural heritage. A coalition of conservation groups including the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association and others backed the U.S. Interior Department, currently led by Secretary David Bernhardt.
“The Trump Administration has been very favorable to oil and gas, and we were concerned they would waver,” Glacier-Two Medicine Executive Director Peter Metcalf said on Tuesday. “But the government was defending the cancellation. They were good to work with.”
The lease owned by Solenex LLC was the last active exploratory lease of about 45 issued in the Badger-Two Medicine area since the 1980s.
"We're obviously very disappointed in the panel's decision today, particularly their refusal to engage with any of the arguments we raised on appeal," said David McDonald, attorney for Solenex, which was owned by Sidney Longwell. "We fully intend on continuing to fight for Solenex and the Longwell family, and we're currently considering all available avenues to do so."
Longwell himself died on March 27 at age 81 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He had been represented by William Perry Pendley of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, who became the Trump Administration’s deputy director of policy and programs for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in January. Mountain States Legal Foundation’s first president was James Watt, who was Interior secretary when Solenex’s original lease was purchased in 1982.
Solenex held the lease for more than 30 years. It had not yet drilled because of bureaucratic delays within the U.S. departments of Interior and Agriculture, prompting the company to sue in 2013.
The U.S. government canceled the lease in 2016, saying a proper environmental analysis had not been conducted. Solenex challenged the decision. A federal judge sided with the company in 2018, saying the long amount of time between the lease being issued and canceled violated federal law.
The three-judge appellate panel ruled the judge's findings were wrong and that the government had considered Solenex's interests.
"Delay by itself is not enough to render the lease cancellation arbitrary or capricious," the ruling said.
Trump’s first Interior secretary, former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, had pledged to protect the Badger-Two Medicine from energy development shortly after he joined the administration. At the same time Zinke was ordering the reduction of several national monuments including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase in Utah, he proposed adding the Badger-Two Medicine to the national monument system.
Murray said the Blackfeet Tribe remains interested in permanent protection for the area, but doubted that a monument would be secure from future changes. Nevertheless, he said the lease cancellation was a welcome step forward.
“People have been calling and calling, so happy the oil well won’t be in the Badger-Two Medicine,” Murray said on Tuesday. “We’re meeting tonight, getting together on the Two Medicine River, to do some kind of celebration.”
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