A federal judge last week found the Department of Interior acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when it canceled oil and gas leases held by a Louisiana- based company on Forest Service lands just south of Glacier National Park in the Badger-Two Medicine.
Judge Richard Leon, in a passionate opinion, 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 government’s fulfillment of its contractual duties requires it to act in good faith. It did not do so here!” Leon wrote.
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.
Leon noted if that was the case, the Department should have rectified it years ago, not delayed the leases for three decades.
“Federal defendants appear to argue that no time period, however long, would prove too attenuated to reconsider the issuance of a lease under newly discovered legal theories. Horsefeathers! Even putting aside the 30 years defendants supposedly spent trying to discover the lawfulness or unlawfulness of their own actions, this ‘wait and see’ approach — though convenient from a policy perspective, wreaks havoc on the interests of individual leaseholders,” he wrote.
The Badger-Two Medicine is unroaded wildland, home to a herd of about 800 elk, rolling hills, trout streams, and a host of other game species. It is permanently protected under federal law against any new oil and gas leases, but not existing ones.
Most companies that held leases in the area have already voluntarily relinquished them, though Solonex and Texas oilman W.A. Moncrief, refused to give up their claims.
The leases were canceled in the waning days of the Obama administration.
An appeal is likely.
Timothy Preso, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group that had intervenor status in the case, said the group looked forward to making further arguments in a court of appeals.
Solenex attorney William Perry Pendley urged President Donald Trump’s administration to let the company proceed with drilling. He argued that a failure to reverse the Obama administration decision would leave all oil and gas leases granted under Trump in danger of being ended under future presidents.
“The right to drill on these leases cannot be denied,” Pendley said. “This is a property right, and it’s well settled: When you get a lease, the government is agreeing you have a right to drill.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has made energy development a top priority. Zinke last year recommended designating the Badger-Two Medicine as a national monument, but that would not automatically bar drilling.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.