WASHINGTON — In a rare win for Native American rights over the oil industry, the Department of the Interior canceled 15 oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area of northwest Montana, land that the Blackfeet Nation considers sacred.
The 130,000 acres are in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, near Glacier National Park. The federal land is home to the Blackfeet tribe’s creation story.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said Wednesday that she was righting a historic wrong in retiring the leases. In the 1980s, under the Reagan administration, the Interior Department issued 47 oil and gas drilling leases in the Badger-Two Medicine region. Although the leases were never developed by the oil production companies that owned them, the possibility has long troubled members of the Blackfeet Nation.
When the leases were issued over 30 years ago, the Interior Department did not consult the Blackfeet Nation or consider the environmental impact.
“I’m sorry it took so long to get to this point,” Jewell said in an event at her office Wednesday, adding that the leases “never should have been allowed.”
Jewell said the reversal “honors sacred tribal lands and conserves important resources.” Jewell had recently visited and hiked in the area, and noted its rich ecological resources as well as its cultural and historical significance.
In March, Jewell announced the cancellation of another lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area. There are still two more active leases, though Jewell and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) expressed their commitment to retiring those leases as well. (They have to track down the lease owners first.)
Several leaders of the Blackfeet tribe wore traditional clothing for the announcement. The tribe’s chief prayed and performed a song in his native language.
“I’d like to say it’s a victory for the Blackfeet tribe, but it’s not. It’s a victory for the people of Montana, it’s a victory for the people of the United States and the world,” said Harry Barnes, chairman of Blackfeet Nation.
Dave Hager, president and CEO of Devon Energy Corp., said canceling the leases was “simply the right thing to do.” His company owned 15 of the 17 remaining leases, a 32,000-acre portion of Badger-Two Medicine.
Jewell will soon leave her post to make way for President-elect Donald Trump’s new secretary of the interior. Trump has not appointed anyone to the position yet, but his shortlist includes oil executive Forrest Lucas of Lucas Oil and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Jewell, who declined to comment about her potential successor, said she believed her team had “demonstrated the right path forward” for a new secretary.
Jewell was also asked about the escalating protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. The Standing Rock Sioux and supporters have questioned the process used to approve the pipeline, which they say will damage tribal land and waters.
Jewell said the solidarity many Americans have shown with those protesting the pipeline project demonstrates the importance of establishing and following a process to avoid conflicts over tribal lands.
“If we do things right upfront, we don’t end up with uncertainty for industry,” she said. “If we don’t do things right upfront, we have uncertainty for industry, as was exhibited in Badger-Two Medicine and as I think is playing out right now on the pipeline.”