Legal Updates

Secretary of Agriculture Recommends Cancellation of Montana Oil and Gas Leases

On October 30, 2015, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell recommending that BLM cancel 18 long-held oil and gas leases located on Forest Service managed surface in an area of Northwestern Montana called the Badger-Two Medicine. These leases, originally issued in 1982, have been the focus of controversy for many years, largely based on their proximity to areas of cultural significance to the Blackfeet Tribe and Glacier National Park. The leases have been suspended by BLM for almost twenty years, but recent judicial decisions are forcing BLM to make a decision on the ultimate fate of the leases in the coming months.

In his Letter, which follows and relies on the earlier findings of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (see link to 9/23/15 blog below) Secretary Vilsack argues that permitting oil and gas development in the area would have “adverse effects” that cannot be mitigated through site-specific requirements. Secretary Vilsack pointed out that in the time since the leases were issued, “there have been many policy developments, not only with regard to historic properties of traditional religious and cultural significance to Indian tribes, but also in Federal-tribal relations. . . . The [Forest Service] has worked diligently to comply with new requirements by pursuing oral histories and contracting supporting archeological and ethnographic work, which gradually revealed the unique and special nature of the Badger-Two Medicine.” With the information gained over the last 30 years, Secretary Vilsack concludes that the leases should not have been issued in the first place and should therefore be canceled by BLM.

Although BLM has ultimate decision-making authority under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 on lease cancellation, Secretary Vilsack’s letter, on behalf of the Surface Managing Agency, is likely to carry significant weight. Under an order from U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, BLM has until November 23 to either lift the suspensions or cancel the leases. If BLM cancels the leases, it is likely to face further legal challenges from the lessees.

Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Recommends Cancellation of Oil and Gas Leases in Montana