US asks judge to uphold cancellation of Montana energy lease

The Obama administration wants a federal judge to uphold its decision to block oil and gas drilling on land considered sacred to some tribes in the U.S. and Canada, as industry groups warn the government's move sets a precedent against energy development.

Justice Department attorneys urged the judge in court documents filed Monday to reject a lawsuit that seeks to reinstate a 6,200-acre energy lease in Montana that was canceled by the Obama administration in March.

The cancellation of the lease near Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation has been assailed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Petroleum Association of Montana.

Federal officials contend the lease was improperly issued by the government in 1982, in part because environmental studies by the U.S. Forest Service did not consider the effects of drilling on the tribes.

The lease is within a 165,000-acre area deemed by the government to be a traditional cultural district of the Blackfoot tribes. It's the site of the creation story for the Blackfoot tribes of southern Canada and the Blackfeet Nation of Montana.

Even if the government validated the lease, it would not avoid cultural harm to the Blackfeet Nation if drilling occurs, Assistant U.S. Attorney General John Cruden wrote in a court brief.

A Louisiana company held the lease for 33 years but had not yet drilled because of numerous bureaucratic delays within the U.S. departments of Interior and Agriculture.

Attorneys for lease-holder Solenex LLC say the establishment of the cultural district was simply a pretext to deny the company its right to drill.

They point to a 1986 letter from Earl Old Person, at the time the chairman of Montana's Blackfeet Nation, in which he argued against designating the Badger-Two Medicine as a wilderness area in part because it would take away the rights of mineral lease holders.

"They saw it for what it was, a real economic opportunity," said William Perry Pendley with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represents Solenex.

Blackfeet Nation historic preservation officer John Murray did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case is being heard by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon.