Wednesday brings another round in the decades-long fight over whether to allow energy development on U.S. Forest Service land in the Badger-Two Medicine area just south of the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana.
A special government historic preservation council will hear arguments for and against allowing an energy company with a lease there to drill an exploratory well to look for oil and gas.
Among those opposing drilling is Bruce Babbitt, who was secretary of the Interior under President Clinton. He is now an honorary director for the World Wildlife Fund and President of Raintree Ventures.
Babbitt says the Badger-Two Medicine is a special place.
"West across the Great Plains and gradually you see enormous alpine front it looks like the Himalayas. It comes straight up out of nowhere. It’s a huge fault thrust."
Babbitt says drilling shouldn’t be allowed to disturb the ecology of the region and disrupt the tradition of the Blackfeet people.
"And the incredible richness and diversity of plant and animal life as you make this transition between the high plains up into the true Rocky Mountains, it’s a remarkable place," Babbit says.
Others don’t see it that way. William Perry Pendly, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation represents a leaseholder on the Badger-Two Medicine who wants to drill it.
"You’re talking about an area that has a railroad through it, has a pipeline through it, Highway 2 goes through it. We’re not talking about a wilderness area; we’re not talking about an area where man is a stranger and does not remain... So, we’re not talking about some pristine area that has never seen activity."
Pendly’s client, a Louisiana company called Solenex, leased 6,200 acres of the Badger-Two Medicine in 1982 for a dollar an acre.
At the time, the Reagan administration was committed to increasing the production of oil and gas from federal lands.
The company’s permit to drill was first approved in 1985. It was later finalized in 1993 after more than 70 appeals.
But when President Clinton took office, the abbreviated environmental impact statement issued for energy development wasn’t thorough enough for then-Interior Secretary Babbitt. So in 1993, he suspended the leases for a year hoping groups could find compromise about the land.
"My feeling was there had not been the mandated environmental compliance. I just put the lease in suspension, hoping that the parties would eventually work something out, all the interested parties, to try to find an acceptable solution. But that obviously didn’t happen," Babbitt says.
His decision was consistent with those of federal courts at the time. They found problems with other oil and gas leases granted in Montana around the same time as those in the Badger-Two Medicine.
Courts suspended leases in the Deep Creek area south of there, saying they violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
In 1998 Babbitt suspended the energy leases on the Badger Two Medicine indefinitely, saying it was necessary to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act.
That was nearly 20 years ago.
William Perry Pendly says his client, Solenex, has been waiting too long. In 2013 he asked a judge to get the Interior Department to take action on the suspended leases.
"The United States government issue him a lease in 1982 and said you can drill on this lease and if you make a discovery and you produce, you will pay a royalty to the united states for the production you make and you have a legal right to drill there. We will not be able to prevent you from drilling."
The Environmental Impact Statement on Solenex’s application to drill exploratory wells said the chances that any one well they drill would result in substantial returns are small. It said that there’s only a five-and-a-half to 7 percent chance that an oil or gas well would ever go into production on the Badger-Two Medicine.
But William Perry Pendly says there’s good potential for productive wells there.
"We have known for a long time, geologists have known that this area has tremendous potential for oil and gas development. And if he were to drill there and able to drill and made a discovery, it would be wonderful news, it would be great news.”
The Blackfeet Tribe doesn’t see it that way.
Some Blackfeet say they should have never lost the land in the treaty that turned the Badger-Two Medicine into what is now a section of the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
The Badger-Two Medicine was a part of the Blackfeet reservation until a treaty with the U.S. Government in 1896.
In 2004, the Blackfeet sent letters to leaseholders asking them to give them up leases, because the Tribe sees the land as sacred.
In 2006, Congress acknowledged the land’s cultural and ecological significance and prohibited any further oil and gas leasing in the Badger-Two Medicine.
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
"That is a very big statement. That is a national policy statement about the primary cultural and environmental importance of this area. And obviously taking into accounts the important opinions of the Blackfeet Tribe. After all this is their historic area. It’s not formally a part of the reservation, but they’ve been there for a long time and they have a lot of use rights. It sort of melded into their cultural and spiritual values, and the United States Congress has recognized that."
After Congress acted, five leaseholders agreed to give up their leases, but four, including Solenex, did not.
And in 2013 Solenex filed a lawsuit saying it had waited too long with a suspended lease and a decision on had to be made on whether the company could drill an exploratory well.
In July, United States District Judge Richard Leon agreed, saying, quote, "No combination of excuses could possibly justify such ineptitude or recalcitrance for such an epic period of time."
Bruce Babbitt agrees with that point.
"There has been time for the decision maker to look at all of the evidence and make a decision. That decision maker is the Department of the Interior; they have the legal authority to cancel the lease. They clearly should make a decision promptly, that is in everybody's interest."
But, Babbitt says, if it were up to him, the leases would be canceled.
Right now, the Interior Department is reviewing whether Solenex’s lease was granted illegally, because of insufficient environmental review. The department’s timeline for a decision on whether to allow drilling is scheduled for November 30.
In the meantime, there are this week’s hearings in Choteau about the historic and cultural significance of the Badger-Two Medicine. It’s still unclear whether the historic council holding the hearings will come into play in ultimately deciding whether drilling will be allowed.
In the second part of this series, you’ll hear from Blackfeet tribal members about why they’re totally opposed to any drilling at all.