US backs off appeal of Montana energy lease cancellation

The Trump administration has scaled back its fight against oil and gas leases on land considered sacred to Native American tribes in Montana and Canada.

The leases are in the nearly 10-square-mile (26-square-kilometer) Badger-Two Medicine area bordering Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Reservation.

The Obama administration had cancelled the leases following longstanding opposition from the Blackfoot tribes, but a judge overturned the cancellations in September.

On Wednesday, the administration withdrew its appeal of the decision on one of the disputed leases, held by W.A. Moncrief, Jr., court papers show. Then on Thursday, government attorneys pressed forward with the administration's legal challenge to the second lease, held by Solenex LLC of Louisiana.

Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had said it would be inappropriate to allow drilling in the area — a sentiment echoed in the government's arguments against reinstating the Solenex lease.

It remains unclear why opposition to the other lease was dropped. Interior spokeswoman Molly Block said the agency wasn't commenting on the cases.

Government attorneys said in their court fillings that the "factual and procedural setting" of the Solenex case was different than the Moncrief case, but gave no further explanation. Solenex has a permit to drill on its lease, while Moncrief does not.

John Murray with the Blackfeet Pikuni Traditionalist Association, which intervened in both cases, said the tribe has entered negotiations with Moncrief in hopes that drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine area still can be avoided.

"The tribe is willing to offer up tracts of land on the reservation to drill for potential oil and gas," Murray said. "The door is open to talk."

An attorney for Moncrief, Tim McCrum, said he was pleased with the move to drop the appeal, but declined to comment on whether a drilling permit will be pursued.

"We'll be looking at all reasonable options related to the lease," McCrum said.