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Oil company permanently retires 7,600-acre lease in Badger-Two Medicine

“Even though Moncrief Oil believes that this valuable oil and gas lease could have been developed while protecting and even benefiting the wilderness, the sensitivity to this special area outweighs development, and therefore has agreed to relinquishment of the lease to the federal government after the prior proper ruling by the court,” the company said in a release Tuesday. (Glacier Two Medicine Alliance)

One of two contentious oil and gas leases is no longer a threat to a sacred wild land south of Glacier National Park.

On Tuesday, the Wilderness Society announced it had reached an out-of-court settlement with Moncrief Oil to permanently retire a 7,640-acre oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. That leaves one 6,200-acre lease owned by Solonex LLC still in play.

“The Wilderness Society thanks Mr. W.A. Moncrief, Jr. for his willingness to negotiate, and we are pleased to have been able to secure the retirement of this lease. We look forward to working with our partners in the Blackfeet Nation and other stakeholders to obtain permanent protections for this important area of our nation’s public lands,” said Wilderness Society president Jamie Williams in a statement.

The sale in the 1980s of oil and gas leases in the 132,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area led to decades of legal wrangling and political manipulation as the Blackfeet tribe and conservation groups struggled against the petroleum industry and federal agencies to keep oil and gas out of the wild region between the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and Glacier National Park.

The area is sacred to the Blackfeet, but it is not part of the reservation. In 2015, dozens of locals and tribal members testified before the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on the importance of the area to tribal history and spirituality. 

The council advises federal land managers on the necessity of prioritizing historic preservation over resource extraction. After the hearing, the council agreed, saying development “would result in serious and irreparable degradation of Badger-Two Medicine.”

Since that hearing, Devon Energy retired its 15 leases in 2016 in return for sunk costs. 

Then, in early 2017, the Department of the Interior cancelled both Moncrief’s and Solonex’s lease. Then, the leases were reinstated after the companies challenged the cancellation and won in a D.C. court. The Interior Department dropped its appeal in April but tribal members and conservation groups moved forward with theirs, and the Moncrief case was pending before this settlement was reached.

The Blackfeet weren’t part of the settlement, so they were pleasantly surprised by Tuesday’s news.

Blackfeet Tribal chairman Tim Davis said the tribe has several leases on its reservation so it isn’t against oil and gas development. The tribe simply doesn’t want leases on its sacred sites.

“It’s not just our history that is tied to the Badger-Two Medicine – it’s our future,” said Terry Tatsey, Tribal Business Council member. “The Badger-Two Medicine is where we teach our younger generations. We’ve been fighting to protect that Blackfeet future for many years now, and announcements like this one made today prove we’re moving in the right direction.”

Moncrief Oil also agreed that drilling might not be appropriate in so sensitive a region, although the company likely received payment at least for costs, similar to Devon Energy.

“Even though Moncrief Oil believes that this valuable oil and gas lease could have been developed while protecting and even benefiting the wilderness, the sensitivity to this special area outweighs development, and therefore has agreed to relinquishment of the lease to the federal government after the prior proper ruling by the court,” the company said in a release.

Now that Moncrief Oil has pulled out, only the Solonex lease remains. And it’s been one of the most hard-fought.

Solonex owner Sidney Longwell applied for the lease in 1982, which Interior Sec. James Watt approved under questionable circumstances. Since then, the lease has been through delays and suspensions, more than a dozen appeals, seven ethnographic studies and one archeological study.

The Solonex case is still before the D.C. Court of Appeals, and the Department of the Interior is still one of the parties arguing against the lease.

But former Solonex attorney William Pendley probably won’t be defending the company’s claim. In June, Interior Sec. David Bernhardt named Pendley as acting co-director of the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees all oil and gas leases, even on Forest Service land. Because he’s placed in an “acting” status, Pendley hasn’t been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

On Monday, Berhardt extended Pendley’s appointment until Jan. 3.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.