Op-Ed from GTMA Leadership 10-18-2018

Letter From GTMA President Kendall Flint, and President Elect, Lou Bruno sent to Montana News Papers.

From:    Kendall Flint and Lou Bruno

                President and President-elect, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance

Re:         Op-Ed submission relating to the reinstatement of Badger-Two Medicine Oil Leases

Date:     Wednesday October 17, 2018

Dear Editor,

We respectfully urge Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department to protect Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine landscape, and appeal the recent reinstatement of two cancelled oil leases there. 

On September 24th, efforts to protect “the Badger” suffered a setback when DC District Judge Richard Leon restored those leases.  

The leasing dates from the 1980s when countless leases were created, blanketing western National Forest lands with would-be oilfields.  Much of that leasing, including in Badger-Two Medicine country, was improperly rushed, with essentially-reusable “cookie-cutter” Environmental Assessments, (EAs), instead of required site-specific Environmental Impact Statements, (EISs), and without mandated Blackfeet Tribal consultation. The government maintained then that leasing was simply clerical, and didn’t itself impact the environment. 

Montanans promptly sued, focusing on an area farther south on the Rocky Mountain Front, (Bob Marshall Alliance v. James Watt), and another in the Flathead National Forest, (Conner v. Burford).  Plaintiffs argued that leasing requires site-specific EISs, because leasing leads to drilling, with site-specific environmental impacts.  Judges agreed, voiding both leases and directing the government to start over with site-specific EIS processes. 

That “start over” never happened.  And the threat from oil development on public wildlands subsided.  In the Badger-Two Medicine’s Hall Creek drainage, drilling was cancelled at the 11th hour. That Hall Creek lease was suspended, (though not voided), and conservationists were lulled into a sense of security.  Then, in 2013, that threat reared its head as an oil-industry lawsuit. Louisiana oilman Sydney Longwell maintained that his old Hall Creek lease constituted a property right, and he wanted to develop that property. He challenged the government’s suspension of lease development.  Judge Leon agreed and directed the government to provide a quick timeline to drill. 

Ironically, Longwell proved the old conservationists right.  As argued 30 years ago, selling an oil lease did imply the consequence of drilling, with all the environmental, wildlife, and cultural impacts that oil exploration entails.  This time the government agreed.  After considerable deliberation, Interior Secretary Sally Jewel cancelled all remaining B2M leases, affirming that they were illegal. 

In 2017 Mr. Longwell, joined by Texas oilman W.A Moncrief, Jr, sued again, claiming the government overstepped in cancelling their leases.  And last month Judge Leon ruled for Longwell and Moncrief without addressing the legality of their leases.  He opined that lease cancellation was “capricious and reckless” because of the time involved and was unfair to the lease-holders.

It’s worth reviewing those years of lease suspension. While Longwell waited to drill, the conservation community and the Blackfeet Nation continued their efforts to protect “The Badger”.  Over 30 years they worked to translate a Montana groundswell of support into lasting protection for this treasured wildland.  And much happened:  most leaseholders sold, traded or voluntarily surrendered their old leases; Congress declared “the Badger” and the Front off-limits for future leasing; the Forest Service banned damaging motorized travel there; the Badger-Two Medicine was recognized under the National Historic Preservation Act as a Traditional Cultural District sacred to the Blackfeet; and its importance in the greater Crown of the Continent Ecosystem was confirmed. 

On its own, “the Badger” is a beautiful wildland with crucial wildlife habitat, and a living cultural landscape.  Recognizing its keystone connections with the adjoining Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Glacier National Park, and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, it’s clear that the Badger-Two Medicine must never be drilled. 

While Judge Leon’s opinion represents a setback, this issue is not settled.  We now urge Secretary Zinke and the Department of Interior to strongly appeal Judge Leon’s decision, to cancel these illegal leases, and to protect “the Badger” for perpetuity.

-end-

The Badger-Two Medicine is within an area geologists refer to as the "thrust belt".  

The thrust belt is a geologic feature, resulting from the collision of two tectonic plates that thrust up layers of rock to form mountain ranges. In this case, the Pacific and North American plates collided to form the Rocky Mountain Range. According to geologists and petroleum engineers, the thrust belt, where the Badger-Two Medicine lies, exhibits conditions most favorable to hydrocarbon occurrence. For this reason, oil and gas companies, with the support of the Reagan administration, aggressively sought to develop the Badger-Two Medicine for oil and gas exploration in the early 1980's. The Reagan administration illegally granted forty-seven leases to fossil fuel companies. Leasing out the Badger was part of a broader policy of the Reagan administration of opening up federal lands to oil and gas development, no matter how ecologically fragile or culturally important the area was.

The case of the Badger is a particularly egregious example, and fits within a larger plan of the fossil fuel industry to establish a national precedent of successfully drilling in one of the largest remaining roadless areas in the lower forty-eight states. The precedent established by drilling in an area that literally sits across the street from Glacier National Park, borders two designated wilderness areas, serves as one of the most crucial wildlife corridors in the lower forty-eight, and considered sacred to a Native Tribe would mean no lands are safe from fossil fuel development. They would have free reign everywhere. Despite the claim of petroleum engineers that the Badger-Two Medicine exhibits the perfect conditions for the occurrence of hydrocarbons, a Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement states there is only a mere .42% chance of a significant discovery of oil or gas in the area.

Road building and industrial development will disrupt migration through one of the most crucial wildlife corridors in the lower forty-eight that connects Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and will further sever ecological connectivity. Pollution from pipeline ruptures, oil spills, leaking drilling fluid pits, fracking wastewater, stream sedimentation and mixing of drilled through water tables will contaminate the Badger-Two Medicine watershed, jeopardizing the habitat of one of the last remaining populations of genetically pure West Slope Cutthroat Trout. Once roads carve through the landscape, timber harvest becomes more economical (which is problematic, since the Forest Service already identified parts of the Badger as being suitable for timber harvest), and increases the possibility of logging. Such development and increased human access harms the integrity of the wild nature of the landscape, making it unsuitable for wildlife. This is particularly concerning because a recent report shows that a football field worth of wild land is lost to industrial development every 2.5 minutes in the Western United States.

After thirty-four years of Tribal and conservation groups fighting to cancel the forty-seven leases and protect this pristine landscape, forty-four leases have voluntarily been retired, the Department of the Interior has cancelled one lease (Hall Creek) and not a single road, bulldozer or drill pad has disturbed this fragile ecosystem. Most recently, on November 16, 2016 - under the leadership of Sec. Sally Jewell - the Department of the Interior and Devon Energy reached an agreement to retire their fifteen leases. However, the holder - Solenex - of the Hall Creek lease is suing the federal government to restore their lease and allow them to drill. The holders of the remaining two leases are Moncrief and JG Kluthe. Solenex has been offered numerous opportunities to either sell back the leases or explore somewhere else on the Blackfeet reservation that is not ecologically or culturally sensitive. They refuse to do the right thing. According to Blackfeet elder Tiny Man Heavy Runner, the Blackfeet call the time of the dinosaurs the Serpent World, and believe that the Creator (Napi) destroyed it and buried it deep in the Earth for a reason.  He says, "When you drill for oil you bring the Serpent World up into this world, where it was never supposed to be. We say it should stay in the ground, and if you look at the damage the Serpent World is doing to us today, you can see we're right."

Litigation Update

As you may know, in March of this year we celebrated a remarkable step toward permanent protection of the Badger Two Medicine when the U.S. Department of Interior cancelled the oil and gas lease on the Hall Creek landscape. The government contends that the lease was illegally issued in 1982 because the environmental studies of this area did not consider how the drilling would disturb the Blackfeet Tribes cultural and religious connection to the sacred 165,000 acre Traditional Cultural District. Federal Officials are now officially recognizing the devastating impact drilling would have on the cultural and ecological integrity of this land and have taken the initial step to right the wrong done three decades ago. However, as expected, Solenex does not plan to back down easily. The company has demanded that the case be brought to U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington D.C. to challenge the governments decision. We do not know the outcome of this challenge, but we do know GTMA will continue to work with the Blackfeet Tribe and everyone else dedicated to this campaign, until the Badger is permanently protected. Read more about this lawsuit. 

Please send Interior Secretary Sally Jewell a letter asking her to cancel the remaining leases and also sign on to the Petition to Cancel the Leases.

Another threat has appeared on the horizon in the form of fracking on the Blackfeet Reservation in areas adjoining the Badger-Two Medicine and Glacier National Park.  Oil companies hope to access oil and gas deposits in these wilderness areas through directional drilling from the reservation.  Fracking and its associated chemicals could irreparably damage the ground and surface waters flowing out of the Badger-Two Medicine and Glacier National Park.  Although by 2014 much of the new exploration for drill sites has stopped, fracking continues in the area.  For more information, please read more about fracking on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation by clicking here.

The Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance stands ready to defend Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine wilderness in the face of such development which would endanger this sacred, pristine, and productive habitat. With our wilderness allies, we have achieved significant results over the last thirty-four years, but new threats may arise until some form of permanent protection is achieved.