The Interior Department has scaled back its fight against two sets of oil and gas drilling leases bordering Glacier National Park.
The leases in question lie in the Badger-Two Medicine, a 130,000 swath of the Rocky Mountain Front held sacred by the Blackfeet Nation, and located between their reservation, Glacier and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
The drilling leases there, held by Solenex LLC and W.A. Moncrief Jr., have drawn controversy and litigation for years. The Interior Department canceled them in 2016 and 2017, only to have federal Judge Richard Leon overturn those decisions in two separate cases last fall.
Then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke planned to appeal those rulings. But on Wednesday, just before the appeal briefs were due, the Interior Department filed an intent to withdraw its appeal of the Moncrief case.
This step means that the federal government is no longer challenging Moncrief's lease, even at as it continues to challenge Solenex's. Both are still being challenged by environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice, which is representing the Blackfeet Pikuni Traditionalist Association and five other area environmental groups in as defendant-intervenors.
"We heard that DOI dismissed the Moncrief case and they're going to proceed" with the Solenex case, said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso.
The news comes in the wake of a leadership transition at Interior. Zinke, who had close ties to the Blackfeet, stepped down in December. The Department has since been led by David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist. Asked for comment, spokesperson Molly Block only said that the department could not comment on ongoing litigation.
But whatever prompted the department to withdraw its appeal of the Moncrief leases, Earthjustice’s Preso made clear that “we’re going to press forward with our appeal.” The briefs are set to be filed Thursday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The latest filing drew a swift reaction from Tim Davis, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation’s Tribal Business Council. “Unfortunately, DOI’s court filings do not defend the Badger-Two Medicine against all threats,” he wrote in a press release Wednesday. “While the government is standing by their cancellation of the oil/gas lease held by Solenex, LLC, it is not defending their cancellation of the lease held by Moncrief Oil.”
Of several former leaseholders, he continued, these two firms “have alone persisted in their attempts to industrialize Blackfeet cultural homelands.”
However, they’re at slightly different points in the regulatory process. Solenex’s lease had previously been suspended, and in Preso’s view, “until that (suspension) order is lifted, the lease remains under suspension.” An attorney for the Louisiana-based company has previously disputed this claim.
And, the act of drilling requires a separate permit. “Solenex has a permit, Moncrief does not,” Preso said.
That reality has John Murray, Blackfeet tribal historic preservation officer, confident that the tribe can cut a deal with Texas-based Moncrief, even though the federal government is no longer appealing its lease in court.
If “Moncrief decides to pursue their lease … they gotta go through the whole (approval) process,” a step that he predicts “may not be in their best interests.”
“What the tribe decided is to try to build a relationship with them and try to come to some kind of settlement," he said.
Both Murray and Davis raised the possibility of offering Moncrief leases on the Blackfeet Reservation itself in exchange for the Badger-Two Medicine ones. Moncrief representatives could not be reached for comment on this proposal or the court case by press time Wednesday.
“Whatever type of agreements they craft, they want to assure Moncrief that they can assure a reasonable resolution to everyone,” Murray said of the Blackfeet.
But such a resolution, he made clear, won’t leave this stretch of forest and prairie at the Rockies’ base open to drilling.
“The area’s been a living landscape that we’ve used for many, many uses,” he said, “a lot of our origin stories are located there.
“We will not relent in trying to keep them out of there, out of the Badger-Two Medicine.”