Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke said last week he would appeal a judge’s ruling that would allow oil and gas exploration on the Badger Two Medicine.
“I have tremendous respect for the Blackfeet Nation and strongly believe resource development in these most sacred of lands would be inappropriate,” Zinke said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The Blackfeet Tribe considers the 130,000 acre swath of land along the Continental Divide just south of Glacier National Park at Marias Pass sacred.
“We welcome Sec. Zinke’s announcement and thank him for his continued work on behalf of Blackfeet lands and culture. We look forward to working with Sec. Zinke and his administration to make his commitment a reality in the coming weeks.”
The Blackfeet say the drilling will threaten their sacred lands with roads and drill pads.
The unroaded, non-motorized landscape is home to a host of wildlife species, including grizzly bears, black bears, mule deer and a large herd of elk.
A bill passed by Sen. Max Baucus several years ago bans all new leases in the region, but did not expunge current leases. Many companies already voluntarily relinquished their claims, but not all of them.
Solonex LLC of Baton Rouge, Louisiana sued the Department of Interior after its lease was canceled in the waning hours of the Obama Administration. U.S. District Court Judge Judge Richard Leon ruled in favor the company, claiming the federal government had effectively blocked its valid claim for 35 years.
An appeal will pit Zinke’s agency against an oil and gas company’s development plans — a relatively uncommon position for the pro-energy Trump administration.
“I’m very disappointed,” Solenex attorney William “Perry” Pendley with the Mountain States Legal Foundation told the Associated Press. “What Zinke is asking for is the right of a secretary of Interior to cancel any oil and gas lease at any time for any reason.”
Congress in 2006 provided tax breaks and other incentives that prompted 29 leaseholders to relinquish their drilling rights, but some leaseholders declined the offers. Fifteen leases in the area were given up voluntarily by Devon Energy in 2016, and the government later canceled what had been the last two leases in the area. The second existing lease was held by W.A. Moncrief. Moncrief also sued the DOI when its lease was canceled.
The tribe and other legal analysts have argued that the original permits were illegal to begin with, but Leon disagreed, noting they had gone through the necessary environmental review when they were approved in the mid 1980s.