Tribe Says Drilling Project Would Have 'Heartbreaking' Consequences

Mar 4, 2016
Originally published on March 4, 2016 9:20 am

A few miles outside Glacier National Park in northwest Montana is land known as the Badger-Two Medicine, the ancestral home of the Blackfeet tribe.

But it's also the site of 18 oil and gas development leases, and an energy company is heading to federal court March 10 to fight for the right to drill there after decades of delay.

Blackfeet tribal historian John Murray doesn't want the drilling to begin.

"This area, this landscape, this wild, this solitude, this inextricably inalienable relationship we have with the Badger-Two Medicine would be destroyed if they came in here and started drilling and building pipelines and roads and bridges," Murray says. "They would destroy that. For what?"

In the early 1980s, a Louisiana company called Solenex leased more than 6,000 acres of this national forest land from the Bureau of Land Management for a dollar an acre.

Solenex's lease was one of dozens issued in the area during the Reagan administration. During that era, the BLM was committed to increasing oil and gas production from federal lands.

After years of appeals, the permit for Solenex was finalized. But before the drilling could begin, new leadership entered the White House. Bruce Babbitt, interior secretary during the Clinton administration, halted the lease.

"What I did at that time was simply to suspend the lease," Babbitt says. "My feeling was there had not been the mandated environmental compliance."

Solenex's lawyer, William Perry Pendley, says his client has had to wait too long to use its lease. He says drilling could produce energy that would benefit the local economy as well as the whole state of Montana.

"You're talking about an area that has a railroad through it, has a pipeline through it, has a road through it, Highway 2 goes through it," he says. "We have known for a long time, geologists have known, that this area has tremendous potential for oil and gas development."

Late last year, the Interior Department said it has the authority and is prepared to cancel the lease because it was originally issued without full environmental review.

The federal judge overseeing the case has scolded the federal government for the long delay.

Murray says he was a young man when he joined the effort to keep drilling out of the Badger-Two Medicine. He'll turn 69 in a couple of months. Drilling, Murray says, will destroy a physical symbol of his people's heritage.

"And it's really heartbreaking," he says. "We're indigenous to this area and we were given gifts. And it encompasses this landscape we're walking on right now."

He doesn't want his people to end up like other tribes he has seen who have lost their memories of tradition and spiritual connection to the land.

Among the issues the federal district judge will decide is whether the Interior Department has the authority to cancel the lease and whether the government unreasonably delayed Solenex from drilling for 30 years.

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Later this month, an energy company that wants to drill near Glacier National Park goes to federal court for the right to do so. Some environmental groups and Native American tribes want to stop this. Montana Public Radio's Corin Cates-Carney reports.

CATES-CARNEY: A few miles outside Glacier National Park in northwest Montana, Blackfeet tribal historian John Murray walks through tall grass on the ancestral home of his people. The land known as the Badger-Two Medicine.

JOHN MURRAY: The spirit of Blackfoot thought is immortal.

CATES-CARNEY: The land is also the site of 18 oil and gas development leases, but Murray doesn't want drilling to begin.

MURRAY: And this area, this landscape, this wild, this solitude, this inextricably inalienable relationship we have with the Badger-Two Medicine would be destroyed if they came in here and started drilling and building pipelines, roads, bridges. You know, they would destroy that. For what?

CATES-CARNEY: In the early '80s, a Louisiana company called Solenex leased more than 6,000 acres of this national forest land from the Bureau of Land Management for a dollar an acre. Solenex's lease was one of dozens issued in that area during the Reagan administration. During that era, the BLM was committed to increasing oil and gas production from federal lands. After years of appeals, the permit was finalized. But before drilling began new leadership entered the White House. Then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt of the Clinton administration halted the lease.

BRUCE BABBITT: What I did at that time was simply to suspend the lease. My feeling was there had not been the mandated environmental compliance.

WILLIAM PERRY PENDLEY: You're talking about an area that has a railroad through it, has a pipeline through it, has a road through it. Highway 2 goes through it.

CATES-CARNEY: William Perry Pendley is the lawyer for Solenex. He says his client has waited too long to use its lease. He says drilling would produce energy that would benefit the local economy as well as the whole state of Montana.

PENDLEY: We have known for a long time, geologists have known that this area has tremendous potential for oil and gas development.

CATES-CARNEY: Late last year, the Interior Department said that it has the authority and is prepared to cancel the lease because it was originally issued without full environmental review. The federal judge overseeing the case has scolded the federal government for the long delay. John Murray of the Blackfeet says he was a young man when he joined the effort to keep drilling out of the Badger-Two Medicine. He'll turn 69 in a couple months.

MURRAY: And it's really heartbreaking.

CATES-CARNEY: Drilling, Murray says, will destroy a physical symbol of his people's heritage.

MURRAY: We're indigenous to this area. And we were given gifts, and it encompasses this landscape we're walking in right now.

CATES-CARNEY: He doesn't want his people to end up like other tribes he has seen who have lost their memories of tradition and spiritual connection to the land. Among the issues the federal judge will decide - whether the Interior Department has the authority to cancel the lease and whether the government unreasonably delayed Solenex from drilling for 30 years. For NPR News, I'm Corin Cates-Carney in Helena, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.