US judge asked to lift hold on drilling lease near Glacier park on land sacred to Indians

An attorney for a Louisiana oil company has asked a judge to reject the government's proposed timeline for lifting its hold on an energy lease on land in Montana that's sacred among American Indians.

The request comes as a federal historic preservation panel plans a public hearing Wednesday in Choteau on whether to allow drilling on the 6,200-acre lease site near Glacier National Park.

The Blackfeet tribes of the U.S. and Canada are opposed to drilling on what they consider their spiritual homeland. They argue the lease was illegally issued because the Montana tribe was not consulted first.

But Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge wants U.S. District Judge Richard Leon to lift a longstanding suspension of the leases so the Baton Rouge company can begin drilling. Solenex attorney Steven Lechner said the government's proposed schedule for the matter will add years to the three-decade delay the company already has endured.

The company sued in 2013 to lift the suspension, and in July Leon ordered federal agencies involved in the process to write a timeline for ending their review.

Previous consultations with the tribe and Solenex representatives ended in July without an agreement.

The advisory council will provide comments to the U.S. Forest Service by Sept. 21 on the effects of drilling on historic properties in the area and how to avoid or minimize those effects.

After that, the Forest Service will make its recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management by the end of October. The BLM then will decide whether to pursue the path of lifting the suspension or begin the process of canceling the lease outright.

If the lease is canceled, the process is expected to take four months. The process to lift the suspension may involve a further environmental review that would push back drilling to 2017.