Senator Tester calls for Cancellation of Long-disputed Montana Oil and Gas Leases

At the end of March 2015, Montana’s U.S. Senator Jon Tester joined the Blackfeet Nation in calling on the federal government to cancel 18 existing federal oil and gas leases located in Northwestern Montana. These leases have been the focus of controversy for several decades, and Senator Tester’s recent letter appears to signal a new chapter in the ongoing debate.

The leases (collectively referred to as the Solenex Leases) were issued by BLM in 1982. Two years later, the BLM issued an APD for one of the leases, thereby approving wellsite development. However, that development was halted and the other 46 leases were indefinitely suspended when the BLM and U.S. Forest Service (as the surface management agency) issued a series of suspensions between 1993 and 1997, finally deciding in 1998 to “indefinitely suspend” the leases. 29 of the leases have since been voluntarily relinquished, but 18 leases still remain.

The Solenex Leases are located along the Rocky Mountain Front in an area referred to by the Blackfeet as the Badger-Two Medicine. This area is bordered by the Blackfeet Reservation to the Northeast and generally lies southeast of Glacier National Park. While the area is outside of the Blackfeet Reservation boundary, it is considered spiritually significant to some tribal members. The area has now been placed off-limits to future oil and gas leasing as a result of a 2006 statue introduced by Senator Max Baucus that recognizes “valid existing rights”. Thus, the debate now centers on the fate of the remaining 18 leases.

Although the Blackfeet Nation was largely silent on the issue during the 1980’s, ‘90’s and early 2000’s, the Tribe has now publicly expressed opposition to the leases and, with the support of several environmental groups, has argued that the leases should be cancelled on the grounds that they were issued with inadequate NEPA analysis and that the Tribe was not consulted prior to lease issuance.

While the Tribe, with the support of Senator Tester, attempts to exert political pressure on the BLM and Forest Service to finally cancel the leases, Solenex, the owner of several of the remaining leases, has filed suit in federal court arguing that the BLM’s “indefinite” suspension violates the Mineral Leasing Act. Obama administration attorneys have responded that the suspension is “reasonable,” given the complexity of the issue and the fact that remedial environmental analyses are ongoing.

Given the renewed attention being paid to this issue in the courthouse, at the agencies and on Capitol Hill, it seems possible that finality may be close at hand. While it is difficult to predict what form resolution may take, it is likely to be achieved through some combination of litigation and political deal-making.

For more information on the Solenex v. BLM litigation, see the Mountain States Legal Foundation website: https://www.mountainstateslegal.org/cases/all-cases/solenex-llc-v.-jewell#.VS1s0IznaUl

Senator Tester’s letter to Secretaries Jewell and Vilsack can be found at: http://www.tester.senate.gov/?p=news&id=3864

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