Company seeks to restore oil lease on land sacred to tribes

Dec 23, 2021, 12:53 PM | Updated: 5:27 pm

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Attorneys for a Louisiana oil and gas company have asked a federal judge to reinstate a drilling lease it held on land considered sacred to Native American tribes in the U.S. and Canada.

The long-disputed energy lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area of northwestern Montana near the Blackfeet Reservation was cancelled in 2016 under then-U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. That decision was upheld by a federal appeals court last year.

Now Solenex LLC — the company that held the lease — is making another run at getting a court to restore its drilling rights. In court documents filed Thursday in a lawsuit against the Interior Department, its attorneys argued that Jewell exceeded her authority and the lease should be reinstated.

Solenex founder Sidney Longwell, who died last year, bought the 10-square-mile (25-square-kilometer) lease in 1982 but never drilled on the site. Instead, Longwell confronted major bureaucratic delays within the U.S. departments of Interior and Agriculture that prompted the company to sue in 2013.

The Badger-Two-Medicine area near Glacier National Park is the site of the creation story of the Blackfoot tribes of southern Canada and Montana’s Blackfeet Nation. There have been efforts to declare it a national monument or make it a cultural heritage area, and tribal leaders have bitterly opposed Solenex’s drilling aspirations.

The Blackfeet have intervened in the case on the side of the government. Blackfeet Nation historic preservation officer John Murray said tribal officials were confident in the case against drilling.

“We knew they still wanted to try to do drilling,” Murray said. “We’ve got some good attorneys. I think we’re going to prevail.”

Solenex attorneys said the government unlawfully “outsourced” its decisions by deferring to the tribe’s wishes to block drilling. They said officials should have considered ways drilling impacts could be lessened or offset if it were to proceed.

Solenex’s lawsuit is being waged by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Colorado-based firm that pursues cases involving property rights, guns and other conservative causes.

Solenex is listed as a corporation not in good standing with the Louisiana secretary of state for failure to file an annual report. Mountain States Legal Foundation said it is working with the family of company founder Longwell to carry on the litigation.

“Justice delayed is justice denied, and there’s no better example of that than our client, Mr. Longwell, who spent 38 years of his life trying to defend his property right in an energy lease that initially was granted to him but then summarily denied,” Solenex attorney Zhonette Brown said.

Interior Department spokesperson Tyler Cherry declined to comment on the case.

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Company seeks to restore oil lease on land sacred to tribes