Agriculture Secretary: Cancel LA-Based Solenex Oil And Gas Leases On Sacred Land

HELENA, MT (AP) — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack has recommended the cancellation of long-suspended oil and gas drilling leases near Glacier National Park, federal officials disclosed Monday.

         The 18 leases are on land considered sacred to the Blackfoot Indian tribes of the United States and Canada.

         A drilling suspension has been in place since the early 1990s. The owner of one of the leases had challenged that prohibition in federal court, hoping to extract natural gas from the area.

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         But lifting the drilling ban would have "adverse effects" on the site in the Badger Two-Medicine area of northwestern Montana, Vilsack wrote in a Friday letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

         "I find that the balance of considerations weigh in favor of not lifting the suspension of operations and production," Vilsack wrote. He added that the leases themselves should be terminated.

         Jewell's agency will have the final say.

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         Louisiana-based Solenex LLC sued in 2013 to overturn the government suspension. The head of the law firm representing Solenex said Monday that there was no basis for a lease cancellation.

         "This thing has been studied to death over its 32-year life. There's no legal basis for it," said William Perry Pendley with the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

         If the cancellation goes though, Pendley said his clients would be entitled to some kind of compensation.

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         "Badger-Two Medicine is the site of Blackfeet's creation stories and a source of medicine and food for our people," Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation, said in a letter urging President Barack Obama to protect the site from development. Barnes noted Solenex has been reluctant to swap the lease for one on another site.

         "This site is like a church to us. It should be off the table for development forever," Barnes wrote.

         The land where the leases are located is part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest and not on Montana's Blackfeet Reservation.

         Most of the remaining leases in the area are owned by Devon Energy of Oklahoma, according to federal officials.

         Under an order from U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, federal officials face a Nov. 23 deadline to notify the court whether they will lift the drilling suspension or cancel the leases. During previous hearings in the case, Leon has blasted the government's handling of the matter, in particular the long delay experienced by Solenex.

         The U.S. Forest Service in December determined drilling would negatively affect the sacred lease site and reduce its spiritual power for the Blackfeet. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation agreed with that finding in January.

         Dozens more oil and gas leases were originally sold in the area. However, over the years, most have been retired or surrendered.

         Conservation groups supportive of the Blackfeet filed documents in federal court Friday to re-open a lawsuit from the National Wildlife Federation and others challenging the lease sales. That suit had been terminated in 1997 after the government suspended drilling.

         Tim Preso, an attorney for EarthJustice, said reviving the 1997 case always has been an option to continue protecting the Badger-Two Medicine area.

         "If they do anything other than cancel these leases, we want to be able to move ahead with our legal challenge," Preso said Monday.

         This story has been corrected to show a drilling suspension has been in place since the early 1990s.




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