Company gets $2.6 million to relinquish oil lease on Montana land that’s sacred to Native Americans

A Louisiana company will receive $2.6 million to give up the last remaining oil and gas lease on U.S. forest land near Montana’s Glacier National Park, a site sacred to Native Americans.

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A firm from Louisiana will be given $2.6 million to surrender the final oil and gas lease on U.S. forest land close to Montana’s Glacier National Park, a site held sacred by Native Americans, according to government officials and lawyers involved in the agreement on Friday.

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The agreement is set to settle a dispute that has lasted for decades over the oil and gas lease, which spans 10 square miles (25 square kilometers) in the mountainous Badger-Two Medicine region of northwestern Montana.

The lease was granted in 1982 but has remained undeveloped. It is located on the site of the creation story for the Blackfoot tribes of southern Canada and Montana’s Blackfeet Nation. Tribal members have strongly resisted drilling.

Solenex LLC will be given $2.6 million in return for surrendering the lease, according to David McDonald from the Mountain States Legal Foundation, who represented the company. The government will contribute $2 million and the remaining $625,000 will be provided by the Wyss Foundation, a charitable organization established by Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, as stated by McDonald and Wyss spokesperson Marnee Banks.

The Solenex lease was revoked in 2016 by then-U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, following requests from the Blackfoot tribes and conservation organizations.

However, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ordered the lease to be reinstated last year. Leon argued that Jewell did not have the authority to withdraw the lease so many years after its sale and following several previous studies into the environmental and other effects of drilling in the area.

Tribal cultural leaders challenged that decision. The appeal is likely to be dismissed once the agreement for Solenex to surrender the lease is implemented, which could take a few months, according to court documents filed on Friday.

John Murray, Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, described the legal dispute over the lease as a “protracted clash of cultures” and expressed relief that it was over.

“The Badger Two Medicine is significant to the Blackfeet way of life from the past, now and in the future,” Murray stated. “I am pleased to see this oil and gas lease disappear in the Badger Two Medicine. We are back to where we were 40 years ago.”

Solenex founder Sidney Longwell, who passed away in 2020, purchased the lease but never drilled on the site. Instead, Longwell faced significant bureaucratic delays within the U.S. departments of Interior and Agriculture, which led the company to file a lawsuit in 2013.

McDonald stated that Leon’s ruling in September 2022 demonstrated that officials cannot unilaterally revoke oil and gas leases without a breach of contract by the lease holder.

“We view this as an extremely positive outcome,” he stated. “The settlement maintains Judge Leon’s excellent district court opinion, establishing the legal principles we defended in court precedent, and offers substantial compensation for our clients.”

The 1982 lease was one of 47 awarded in the Badger Two-Medicine that year by the Department of Interior. In 2006, Congress withdrew the area from further leasing and offered tax incentives to lease holders, which encouraged most to voluntarily surrender their drilling rights.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland stated on Friday that the announcement “ends the chapter on development threats to this special place and acknowledges the importance of preserving these lands for future generations.”

The Department of Agriculture designated the Badger Two-Medicine as a Traditional Cultural District in 2014.