An attorney for an oil company that is suing the federal government to drill for oil and gas in the Badger-Two Medicine region just south of Glacier National Park was recently named Deputy Director of Policy and Programs for the Bureau of Land Management, drawing charges that there’s a clear conflict of interest in the case.
William Perry Pendley, was a longtime attorney for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represents the Solonex Corp.
As of 2018, Pendley was listed as the attorney of record for Solonex, though the Foundation’s website no longer lists him as an attorney with the organization and his BLM profile makes no mention that he long argued cases for the Foundation.
A group of environmental organizations and the Blackfeet Tribe, which are actively pursuing an appeal of the Solonex’s leases, claim Pendley should recuse himself from all matters of the lease battle.
“Mr. Pendley has a ‘covered relationship’ with Solonex and therefore should be recused from all matters concerning Solonex and the Solonex lease,” Earthjustice attorney Timothey Preso recently wrote in a letter to Casey Hammond, acting director of the BLM.
Solonex has been in a three-decades long battle with the Forest Service over its oil and gas leases in the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area of the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest. The Badger-Two Med is considered sacred ground by the Blackfeet Tribe and is prime hunting territory, with a large elk and deer herd. It is also home to grizzly bears and a pristine trout streams.
In the waning days of the Obama administration, Solonex’s and other leases were all canceled. Solonex, which is based in Louisiana, sued.
A few months later, federal judge Richard Leon found that the government had held up the leases for 30 years, despite initial environmental assessments in the early 1980s that found drilling on the lands just south of Marias Pass would have no environmental impact and no impact on Blackfeet Indian cultural and religious resources.
The Department of Interior argued that the leases, which cover about 6,000 acres of the 130,000 acres that make up the Badger-Two Medicine, were issued in error back in the 1980s by the pro-drilling Reagan Administration.
The Badger-Two Medicine is permanently protected against any new leases under federal law, but not existing leases.
Pendley was the lead counsel in the Solonex case for years.
“Not only is Mr. Pendley acting as Solonex’ s counsel of record in its challenge to the Solonex lease cancellation, but he has repeatedly criticized the government’s actions concerning Solonex’s lease in the press, characterizing them as ‘insane’ and claiming that there was ‘no legal basis for’ the Interior Department’s decision to cancel the lease. Mr. Pendley even wrote an editorial last October applauding the district court’s decision against the government and urging Interior not to ‘defend the indefensible’ by appealing the decision.
“Given these statements, no reasonable person could conclude that Mr. Pendley can now participate impartially in government decisions concerning the Solenex lease,” Preso argues in his letter to Carr.
Earthjustice is representing the Pikuni Traditionalist Association, Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, Montana Wilderness Association, National Parks Conservation Association, and The Wilderness Society in an appeal of the case.
The BLM did not immediately respond to an email inquiry on Pendley’s status in the matter.
If Solonex is successful on appeal it would open the door to drilling — they’re the only company with a valid permit to do so.
Several conservation groups want Pendley removed entirely, claiming he supports selling off public lands. They point to a 2016 op-ed in the National Review where he advocates doing just that across the West.
“The BLM manages some of the most revered places in Montana, and we now have someone in charge of the BLM who would prefer to sell those places off rather than do the job of caring for them on behalf of all Americans,” said Kayje Booker, policy and advocacy director at Montana Wilderness Association. “It’s hard to imagine anyone in this position more dangerous than William Perry Pendley.”
Montana Sen. Jon Tester also weighed in on Pendley’s appointment.
“William Pendley has built a career advocating for the sale of public lands to the highest bidder. His leadership of the agency tasked with protecting the very entities he’d like to sell is a grave threat to the future of public lands in Montana and across the country,” Tester said.
Montana Sen. Steve Daines issued a statement as well.
“The Senator believes Mr. Pendley should be recused and has expressed that to the Department of the Interior,” a Daines spokesperson said.
Pendley’s also fought other local legal battles. In the early 2000s, he represented Jack McFarland, who argued he should have snowmobile or other motorized access to his private land in Glacier National Park in Big Prairie.
The Park, however gates off motorized access to the land every winter, though it is accessible by snowshoe of skis.
McFarland eventually lost that case, which went on for years.