The legal dispute over possible oil and gas drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine area advanced Wednesday.
The case centers on a roughly 6,200-acre mineral lease there, held by Louisiana-based firm Solenex. The firm’s owner, Sidney Longwell, acquired the lease in 1982. But as he sought approval to drill, he drew greater opposition from enviornmental groups and the Blackfeet Nation, whose reservation abuts Badger-Two Medicine. In 2016, then-secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell concluded that the lease had been improperly issued and canceled it altogether.
Solenex amended a lawsuit it already had pending against Jewell, claiming that she had acted improperly in that decision. In the hearing Wednesday, the sides presented their arguments for summary judgment before Judge Richard Leon in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Solenex is being represented by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Denver-based group that advocates for property rights. Its president, William Perry Pendley, noted that Longwell’s efforts to secure drilling approval had already drawn intense regulatory scrutiny. In his view, “the government was reaching back 33 years for purported mistakes that the government made back in the ‘80s.”
Pendley traveled to Washington with the Foundation’s Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Steven J. Lechner, who argued the case. Pendley said that “I thought the court was very much engaged, was active in asking questions and I was encouraged by some of [Judge Leon’s] remarks, including his frustration with the amount of delay in this case.”
He added that “there are no cultural resources on our lease.”
But throughout this case, the Blackfeet have invoked their deep cultural and spiritual ties to the entire region.
“There’s a lot of concern beyond this one leaseholder wanting to go drill in the Badger-Two Medicine,” said attorney Tim Preso, who argued for the legality of the lease cancellation Wednesday.
In defending its decision, the government has been joined by several defendant-intervenors: the Pikuni Traditionalist Association, the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, the Montana Wilderness Association, the National Parks Conservation Association and The Wilderness Society. Preso’s employer, Earthjustice, is representing them in court.
Preso said that the judge “characterized it as a hard case. He didn’t know which way he was going to decide.” Neither he nor Pendley expect a decision before summer. While Pendley came away from the hearing encouraged, Preso said that, in his experience, he’s found that “predictions about outcomes are very hazardous affairs.”
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 758-4407.