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Judge restores energy lease on Montana land sacred to tribes

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A judge reinstated an oil and gas lease on land in northwestern Montana considered sacred to some tribes in the U.S. and Canada — a ruling that could test the depths of the Trump administration's support for the energy industry.

President Barack Obama's Interior Department improperly canceled the nearly 10-square-mile (26-square-kilometer) lease adjacent to Glacier National Park in 2016, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C., said this week.

Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, holds the lease and wants to drill for gas. It's within the Badger Two-Medicine area of Lewis and Clark National Forest — site of the creation story of the Blackfoot tribes of southern Canada and Montana's Blackfeet Nation.

Solenex attorney William Perry Pendley urged President Donald Trump's administration to let the company proceed with drilling. He argued that a failure to reverse the Obama administration decision would leave all oil and gas leases granted under Trump in danger of being ended under future presidents.

"The right to drill on these leases cannot be denied," Pendley said. "This is a property right, and it's well settled: When you get a lease, the government is agreeing you have a right to drill." Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has made energy development a top priority. Zinke last year recommended designating the Badger-Two Medicine as a national monument, but that would not automatically bar drilling.

Government attorneys who had defended the Obama-era lease cancellation in court were reviewing the ruling, which was issued late Monday, U.S. Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said Tuesday. He declined to comment on a potential appeal.

Solenex has held the lease for more than 30 years. It had not yet drilled because of numerous bureaucratic delays within the U.S. departments of Interior and Agriculture that prompted the company to sue in 2013.

An attorney for conservation groups and members of the Blackfeet tribe who intervened in the case said it was frustrating to have the lease reinstated given how long it took to get it canceled. "Conservationists and certainly the Blackfeet have been screaming at the government for years that this lease was illegal," attorney Tim Preso said. "Unfortunately, the government had not responded in a timely fashion and when they did get around to canceling it, the court says you waited too long."

Because the lease had been under a longstanding suspension when it was canceled, its status after the ruling was uncertain. Interior Department representatives did not immediately respond to questions about the lease's status.

Pendley and Preso speculated that the lease would remain suspended, meaning drilling could not begin pending further action by the court or government officials. The Badger-Two Medicine area is part of the Rocky Mountain Front, a scenic expanse of forested mountains that's been subject to a long campaign to block oil and gas development and mining.

Congress in 2006 provided tax breaks and other incentives that prompted 29 leaseholders to relinquish their drilling rights, but some leaseholders declined the offers. Fifteen leases in the area were given up voluntarily by Devon Energy in 2016, and the government canceled what had been the last two leases in the area last year.

Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MatthewBrownAP .

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