Judge Demands Explanation For Lengthy Delay On LA Energy Lease

BILLINGS, MT (AP) — A federal judge is pressing U.S. officials to explain why it's taken three decades to decide on a proposal to drill for natural gas just outside Glacier National Park in an area considered sacred by some Indian tribes in Montana and Canada.

         A frustrated U.S. District Judge Richard Leon called the delay "troubling" and a "nightmare" during a recent court hearing. He ordered the Interior and Agriculture departments to report back to him with any other example of where they have "dragged their feet" for so long.

         "This is no way to run a government. No way to run a government," Leon told government attorney Ruth Ann Storey, according to a transcript of the June 10 hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

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         At issue in the case is a 6,200-acre energy lease in northwest Montana's Badger-Two Medicine National Forest, immediately south of Glacier. Owned by Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the lease has been suspended since the 1990s.

         Solenex sued in 2013 to overturn the suspension. It wants to begin drilling for gas this summer.

         The Badger-Two Medicine area is the home of the creation story of the four Blackfoot tribes in Canada and Montana and the Sun Dance that is central to their religion. The land is part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, but it is not on Montana's Blackfeet Reservation.

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         Blackfoot leaders have asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to cancel the leases.

         The Interior Department issued the energy lease to Solenex in 1982, and the Forest Service in 1996 asked for it to be suspended so the agency could perform a historic preservation survey of the site. That was not completed until 2012, according to Solenex attorney Steven James Lechner, and there still is no final decision on whether the leases should remain in place.

         "Nothing takes 30 years to accomplish, if one wants to get the job done. I mean, we put a man on the moon in less time," Lechner said.

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         Storey defended the government's handling of the case. She said it took many years to conduct the necessary site studies, and working with the tribes meant the process was not entirely within the agencies' control.

         In December, the Forest Service determined drilling would adversely affect the sacred site and reduce its spiritual power for the Blackfeet.

         The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in January agreed with the finding from a Forest Service archaeologist. Recommendations from the council on how to proceed are pending.

         Forest Service spokesman Dave Cunningham said he was not aware of a timeline for a decision.

         "We are continuing the consultation process," he said, referring to federal law that requires tribes to be consulted on matters that could have cultural impacts on them. "Everything else is on hold."

         – by AP Reporter Matthew Brown



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