MISSOULA — One of three remaining energy development leaseholders in the Badger-Two Medicine area south of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation has sued the federal government for access to the land, despite the Department of Interior’s cancellation of the leases in January.
W.A. Moncrief of Fort Worth, Texas, filed his case on April 3, claiming “sudden cancellation of a federal oil and gas lease more than 35 years after its issuance.” Moncrief’s case goes before the same federal judge in Washington, D.C., who is hearing the case of Solenex LLC.
Solonex had a permit to drill in a place the Blackfeet consider sacred ground, but the Department of the Interior canceled that permit last year.
The national forest land ringed by the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex has drawn attention for several years as the Blackfeet Tribe pushed its case that numerous energy exploration leases granted in the 1980s were invalid.
Tribal members revere the 130,000-acre area as the site of their ancestral creation stories and present-day cultural activities. Last year, officials with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management agreed the leases were granted without proper tribal consultation or environmental review.
“The Blackfeet are not against oil and gas development,” Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes stated in an April 14 press release. “But we have always been and will always be against oil and gas development in our most sacred places.”
On the issue of lease cancellation, Barnes wrote, Solenex and Moncrief can blame no one but themselves.
“They ignored multiple Blackfeet resolutions declaring the land sacred, even before they purchased the leases; they declined myriad offers by the Blackfeet Nation and the U.S. government to negotiate a solution; they refused to join the vast majority of companies who exited the Badger-Two Medicine on good terms; and they forced cancellation as a last-resort option by their aggressive litigation and refusal to consult and cooperate. They have taken a radical position, and so have forced an outcome no one wanted.”
In his suit, Moncrief maintains the Interior Department gave him no warning of his lease cancellation before issuing a press release about the action on Jan. 10. He argued that shows the agency was playing politics at the end of President Barack Obama’s administration instead of considering the scientific or historical merits of the lease.
Barnes responded that the tribe had offered Moncrief tax credits, cash offers, alternative leases and pre-drilled wells in other parts of the reservation in compensation for the Badger-Two Medicine leases. He called Moncrief’s claim that the cancellation was a last-minute action by Obama “preposterous.”
“Our 1971 declaration of the B2M’s sacred nature was signed one day after President Obama’s 10th birthday,” Barnes wrote. "The history here runs deep, and establishes clearly that this is anything but ‘last minute.’”
At a lease-cancellation signing with tribal members on Nov. 16, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said her staff was working to resolve the remaining leases. On Jan. 6, Moncrief was paid $27,874 for past lease payments, filing fees and other charges on his 7,640-acre lease. The J.G. Kluthe Trust of Nebraska was paid $30,560 for costs related to its 3,982-acre lease.
Solenex owner Sydney Longwell sued the government several years ago, claiming federal officials were dragging their feet on completing his permit to drill for oil and gas on his Badger-Two Medicine leases. In a parallel analysis, the federal officials decided Solenex’s lease was invalid and canceled it last March.
Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who represents a coalition of tribal and conservation groups against Solenex, said the Moncrief challenge didn’t appear to raise any different issues.
“They never applied for and do not hold a drilling permit, and they can’t do anything on the land without that,” Preso said. “The Solenex case is much further along in the judicial process. They’ve been assigned to the same judge, so unless something extraordinary happens, the outcome of the Solenex case would likely apply to this new case.”