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

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

On September 21, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), an independent federal agency with a key advisory role in National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) § 106 “effects” determinations, recommended that long-ago issued federal oil and gas leases should be cancelled and that future mineral development should not occur within the Badger-Two Medicine area, located in northwestern Montana. As discussed in posts from April 16 and July 27, in 1982, BLM issued 46 oil and gas leases on Forest Service-managed surface in the Badger-Two Medicine area, an area adjacent to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. However, in spite of numerous attempts to develop these leases, the leases were indefinitely suspended by BLM. While 29 of the leases have been voluntarily relinquished, 18 leases remain. These 18 leases, held by Louisiana-based Solenex LLC, are the focus of litigation currently pending in the Washington D.C. Federal District Court for the District of Columbia.

The ACHP recommendation raises challenging First Amendment issues concerning the accommodation owed to Native American traditional cultural beliefs under the NHPA. In its recommendation, ACHP stated that oil and gas development could irrevocably harm the 165,588-acre area, which encompasses lands within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and the Lewis and Clark and Flathead National Forests designated as a “Traditional Cultural District” under NHPA. “The proposed undertaking and the entire Solenex leasehold is located within the Badger-Two Medicine TCD, a historic property of religious and cultural significance to the Blackfeet Tribe. . . The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council described the TCD in Resolution No. 260-2014 (2014) as ‘one of the most cultural and religiously significant areas to the Blackfeet People since time immemorial.’” AHCP Comments (9/21/15) at 4. While the ACHP recommendation argues that BLM should cancel the Solenex leases, none of which are located on the Blackfeet Reservation, the Council’s recommendation goes on to advise against any future oil and gas development in the entirety of the Badger-Two Medicine Area. The Council’s recommendation is not binding on federal agencies, in this case BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, or the courts, but under NHPA the agencies are required to “take into account” the Council’s findings in writing before making a decision. Moreover, given its important role under NHPA as the primary federal historic preservation policy advisor to the President and Congress, its recommendation is likely to carry significant weight as BLM and the Forest Service decide the future of oil and gas development in the area. Meanwhile, if BLM does decide to cancel the Solenex leases, it will be up to the courts to decide if this is authorized under the Mineral Leasing Act and what, if any, compensation is owed to the leaseholders.

ACHP’s recommendation can be found at: http://www.npca.org/assets/pdf/ACHP-Comments-and-Transmittal-Letters.pdf

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Judge Orders “Accelerated” Review of Long-Disputed Montana Oil and Gas Leases

On July 27, 2015, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ordered the BLM to develop an “accelerated schedule” within the next 21 days to be used to decide whether to authorize development of 18 federal oil and gas leases that were originally issued in 1982, but have been suspended for several decades. As discussed earlier [insert link to NRP post from 4/16/15], while the leases were originally issued over 30 years ago, they were suspended by the BLM in 1992 following controversy over whether any development should occur in the area.

Solenex, LLC, who holds record title to the leases, filed suit in 2013, arguing that the BLM’s decades-long suspension is unlawful and violates the Mineral Leasing Act. On Monday, Judge Leon denied Solenex’s request to order BLM to lift the suspension, instead ordering the BLM and Forest Service to develop a schedule outlining when a final decision will be made. Calling the BLM’s failure to make a decision on the suspension “unreasonable,” Judge Leon stated “[n]o combination of excuses could possibly justify such ineptitude or recalcitrance for such an epic period of time.”

Judge Leon’s order requires the BLM and Forest Service to come up with an “accelerated and fixed schedule” in the next 21 days that identifies the tasks that still need to be completed before a final decision can be made and how long those tasks are expected to take. Attorneys for Solenex have stated that they are disappointed the court did not order the suspensions lifted, but are thankful that the court is taking the issue seriously.

Blackfeet tribal Chairman Harry Barnes stated that the tribe, which considers the area in which the leases are located to be a sacred cultural site, will continue to protest any oil and gas development in the area. “The tribe will never let any drilling go ahead . . . We've fought it for too long, and we're going to continue to fight it.”

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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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