LA Firm Objects To Delay In Drilling On Land Sacred To Indians

BILLINGS, MT (AP) — A Louisiana company seeking to drill for natural gas on Montana land held sacred by some American Indians objected to a 75-day review period sought by a federal panel considering the proposal.

         After decades of bureaucratic delays, Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge hoped to begin drilling this summer on its more than 9-square-mile federal energy lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area next to Glacier National Park.

         That timetable appears increasingly unlikely.

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         The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation has said it needs until Sept. 21 to issue its recommendations on whether drilling would degrade the area's significance to the Blackfoot tribes of Canada and Montana. Also pending is a decision in a 2013 lawsuit from Solenex that seeks to lift the suspension.

         "For goodness' sakes, the facts are well-known," said William Perry Pendley with Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Lakewood, Colorado law firm representing Solenex. "We know where everybody is on this and what the facts are. I think they could come up with a conclusion over a long weekend."

         Solenex obtained the lease in 1982. It was suspended in 1993 and remains undeveloped.

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         Leaders from northwest Montana's Blackfeet Tribe recently terminated formal negotiations over the lease, saying the only acceptable outcome was for Solenex not to drill in the area.

         U.S. District Judge Richard Leon lambasted the government's handling of the issue during a hearing in Washington, D.C., last month and asked federal officials to come up with other examples of cases that have taken so long.

         In response, U.S. Justice Department attorney Ruth Ann Storey submitted a letter to the court saying she was unable to find any cases with a comparable timeline. But Storey wrote that the Solenex case was unique, in part because of the importance of the Bader-Two Medicine area to the Blackfeet.

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         Dozens of oil and gas leases have been sold in the area, but over the years, most have been retired or surrendered. Only 18 suspended leases remain, including Solenex's.

         Blackfoot leaders and environmental groups have asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to cancel the leases, which they contend were sold without sufficient environmental review. Fifteen are held by Oklahoma-based Devon Energy.

         "The validity of these leases is going to have to be addressed before this issue is resolved," said Tim Preso, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing environmental groups that sought unsuccessfully to intervene in the case.

         – by AP Reporter Matthew Brown




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