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Solenex will retire last oil and gas lease in Badger-Two Medicine
A settlement agreement between Solenex, the federal government, and tribal and environmental groups marks the end of a 40-year energy development fight.
Thursday, September 14, 2023
Montana Free Press

Louisiana-based company Solenex has agreed to retire the last remaining oil and gas lease in the Badger Two-Medicine, a region of northwest Montana that’s often described as the spiritual homeland of the Blackfeet Tribe.

The agreement, reported Friday (September 1) by organizations involved in a lawsuit over the lease, closes the book on a decades-old dispute over energy development in a remote and largely undeveloped piece of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Solenex first acquired the 6,247-acre lease for oil and gas development in the Badger Two-Medicine in 1982, when the Interior Department issued a total of 47 leases in the area. The Clinton administration suspended it in 1993, a move that subsequent administrations repeated under pressure from conservationists and tribal representatives seeking to stop energy development in the area.

Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance: Victory for the Badger-Two Medicine: Last Oil and Gas Lease Retired!

Congress passed a bill in 2006 that prohibited future oil and gas leasing on the Badger-Two Medicine and used tax incentivizes to encourage remaining lease-holders to relinquish their lease. Solenex was one of a handful of companies that decided to retain its lease ownership at that point. Some of the remaining lease holders sold rights to third parties who then relinquished them to the federal government, and others were canceled by the Interior Department, which refunded the leaseholders’ purchase price and expenses associated with the lease.

When the Bureau of Land Management canceled its lease in 2016, Solenex sued in response. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon of Washington, D.C., sided with the company last year, chastising the Interior Department for subjecting the company to a “never-ending series of administrative reviews [that] have precluded any activity for nearly forty years.”

Leon’s decision was appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by the federal government and the Pikuni Traditionalists Association, a group representing the cultural and religious interest of the Blackfeet Tribe. A joint motion filed in the appeal case Friday indicates the parties have reached a settlement agreement that will resolve the case without further court action.

Badger-Two Medicine
Badger Creek in the Badger-Two Medicine Area in Montana. Photo courtesy Blackfeet Nation

Opposition to energy development in the region by tribal leaders dates back to at least 1974, when the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council recognized the area as sacred. In addition to featuring in Blackfeet creation stories and supplying tribal members with traditional sources of medicine and food, the Badger Two-Medicine is valued for the wildlife habitat it provides to animals moving between Glacier National Park, the Bob-Marshall Wilderness and the Blackfeet Reservation.

Tim Presso, an Earthjustice attorney representing the Pikuni Traditionalists Association and a coalition of conservation organizations in the lawsuit, said in an interview that all parties appear to be pleased with the conclusion of a long legal proceeding. 

Under a drilling permit issued in 1993, Solenex could have built 6 miles of road into the Badger-Two Medicine, constructed a well pad and moved forward with exploratory drilling, Presso said. 

“If that had been successful, there would have been more wells proposed, and we’ve seen what that looks like in other places around the West,” Presso said. “Instead of that, today you can go there and see elk and grizzly bear tracks and a big, undeveloped space that everyone can enjoy.”

David McDonald, an attorney who represented Solenex, said his client is happy with the outcome. He also said Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit law firm active on property rights issues, is pleased that Leon’s 2022 ruling will stand. 

“We’re happy with this result. The clients finally get long-overdue compensation for what’s happened and we think it’s a really great outcome for us,” McDonald said, “We think Judge Leon’s opinion at the district court will be a powerful precedent for years to come.”

Per the terms of the agreement, Solenex will be paid $2.6 million to retire its lease and put its legal claims against the government to rest, McDonald said. He added that negotiations with the federal government over repayment of Mountain States’ legal fees are ongoing. 

Badger-Two Medicine
A map of Badger-Two Medicine Area in Montana shows where a Louisiana-based energy company held a drilling lease. The area borders the Blackfeet Nation and is sacred to the tribe. image courtesy Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance

The Friday court filing didn’t include the full details of the settlement. At least some of the funding to execute the deal was provided by the Wyss Foundation, a philanthropic foundation that supports conservation and social justice initiatives, per a release from Wild Montana, which worked on the issue alongside the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association and The Wilderness Society.

In an emailed statement, Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray said he’s “happy to see the oil and gas lease go away” and thinking of other Blackfeet members who worked on the issue but didn’t live to see its resolution.

“I have no hard feelings about this protracted clash of cultures. I’m just relieved it is over,” Murray wrote. “The Badger Two Medicine is significant to the Blackfeet way of life from the past, now and in the future. My heartfelt thanks go out to so many great people involved in this struggle for the last four decades.”

Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer.

Note: This story originally appeared on Montana Free Press. It is published under a Creative Commons license.

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