BLM Cancels Long-Standing Oil and Gas Leases in Montana; ‘Every Lease At Risk,’ Critics Say

By Penny Starr | March 22, 2016 | 8:08 PM EDT

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced last week the cancellation of a long-standing oil and gas exploration lease on federal land in Montana.

Louisiana-based Solenex LLC has held the lease since the early 1980s in a remote area of Montana’s Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, where oil and gas leasing has since been banned by the federal government.

The Department of the Interior (DOI), of which BLM is a part, said in a March 17 press release that it has the authority to cancel leases.

“In 1982, absent of tribal consultation and a thorough review of environmental and cultural studies, the U.S Forest Service granted 47 oil and gas permit leases in and around the Badger-Two Medicine area,” a press release issued on March 17 stated.

“For over two decades the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and many non-Native conservation and historical preservation groups have sought the cancellation of these permit leases,” it stated.

“While a number of these leases were subsequently cancelled through Congressional action and other measures, the Blackfeet Tribe has sought the cancellation of the remaining leases that would cause irreparable damage to Badger-Two Medicine,” BLM added.

But critics of the cancellation said the unilateral move by a federal agency puts all such leases at risk.

"It's a sad day in the United States when a government agency can unilaterally cancel a paid mineral lease especially after numerous approved exploration permits had previously been issued,” Alan Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, said in a March 17 statement. “The current federal administration is going out of their way to decimate the natural resource industries in this state as well as the nation.”

“They just put every oil and gas lease at risk,” Steve Lecher, attorney for Solenex LLC, told the Great Falls Tribune. “If you can cancel one oil and gas lease after 32 years what makes any lease safe?”

The Solenex lease cancellation is the culmination of a longstanding effort by the Blackfeet Tribe and environmental groups to cease exploration in the Badger-Two Medicine area, which was once part of the Blackfeet reservation until it was ceded to the federal government in 1896, according to the Great Falls Tribune.

“To the Blackfeet, [the land is] the ‘Backbone of the World’ where they were created, and associated with culturally important spirits, heroes and historic figures central to Blackfeet religion and traditional practices,” the Great Falls Tribune story stated. “Today, it’s part of a designated Traditional Cultural District.”

“Today’s cancellation of the lease held by Solonex LLC signifies a major victory in the tribe’s 34-year struggle to protect this sacred place from development that would have caused irreparable damage to the Badger-Two Medicine,” Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), said in the DOI press release.

NCAI began working with the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana in early 2016 and wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, urging the cancellation of any oil and gas leases, the press release stated.

The Great Falls Tribune reported that Solenex is deciding whether to challenge the decision.