Judge orders deadline for drilling in Badger-Two Medicine

The federal government must quickly establish a timeline for its decision on whether a Louisiana oil and gas company can drill on a lease near the Blackfeet Reservation, according to a federal judge.

On Monday, District of Columbia federal district Judge Richard Leon ordered the Department of the Interior to finalize its timeline for deciding whether Solenex, LLC, can drill an exploratory well within a 6,247-acre lease in the Badger-Two Medicine region.

Solenex asked the judge to allow drilling to start immediately. The company is impatient after the DOI Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recent said would need until Sept. 21 to issue its recommendations on whether drilling would degrade cultural sites of the Blackfoot tribes of Canada and Montana.

But it’s not the first committee to keep exploration on hold while it evaluates environmental costs.

The company applied for a drilling permit in 1985, which was approved a year later.

Since then, drilling has been delayed as several agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, conducted numerous environmental reviews under changing laws.

The most recent of six permit suspensions was in 1998.

“No combination of excuses could possibly justify such ineptitude or recalcitrance for such an epic period of time,” Leon wrote.

However, Leon stopped short of ordering an immediate decision, citing other rulings that cautioned courts against “meddling with the details of a rulemaking schedule.” Plus, the advisory council had told him they were close to finishing their review.

The Bureau of Land Management lease is off the Blackfeet Reservation but not by much. It would be west of the reservation, near the headwaters of the Two Medicine River, so the tribe is concerned that oil and gas development, particularly fracking, would foul their water.

They fear that hunting, fishing and logging rights would be limited and claim that religious and cultural sites would be damaged or destroyed.

Conservationists and Glacier National Park managers are concerned that drilling could damage the habitat of endangered species such as bull trout and grizzly bears.

The exploratory project would require construction of 5 miles of road, a bridge across the Two Medicine River wide enough for a drill rig and a well pad. But if fossil fuels are found – and they will be – far more development will follow.

In 2011, Primary Petroleum president Mike Marrandino estimated that the Rocky Mountain Front holds 13 million to 15 million barrels of recoverable oil per square mile. Since then, part of the Front was saved with passage in November of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. But the Badger-Two Medicine is vulnerable.

Blackfeet elders such as Earl Old Person and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray argue that the area holds much more than oil.

“Fracking the ‘Backbone of the World’ would desecrate both the landscape and the cultural identity of present and future generations of Blackfeet people,” according to a Blackfeet statement.

That sentiment probably won't sway Solenex’s legal counsel, the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit foundation “dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited and ethical government and free enterprise system,” according to the foundation website.

According to a 2011 Association Press article, the foundation has “waged battles against affirmative action and protections for endangered species while being bankrolled by some of the most powerful families in the West.”

With big-dollar donations, foundation attorneys take on cases at no charge to the client. And it’s not the first time they’ve chosen lawsuits that challenge rights of Native Americans.

Mountain States Legal Foundation argued for Wyoming county commissioners against tribes on the Wind River Reservation who wanted greater representation on the commission. Based upon the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the judge ruled in favor of the tribes, who made up 20 percent of the county’s population but had no commission representative.

Most recently, the Mountain States Legal Foundation represented two couples on the Flathead Reservation who were attempting to finalize water rights last year prior to the ratification of the Flathead water compact.

The couples filed the claims without informing the tribe or the federal government so the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes sued to prevent a district court or the Montana Water Court from deciding any water rights without CSKT knowledge and prior to resolution of the compact.

In April, the 2015 Legislature approved the water compact after 13 years of development and two years of contentious hearings and lawsuits between the 2013 and 2015 legislative sessions. 

As a result, the CSKT owns the water rights that were promised in the 1855 Treaty of the Hellgate, although Congress still has to approve the compact.

The Blackfeet Tribe recently pulled out of compromise negotiations with the Forest Service, saying it rejects drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine under any circumstances.