By Rob Nikolewski │ Watchdog.org
When Sidney Longwell submitted an application for a permit to drill on federal land in northwest Montana in 1983, Ronald Reagan was in his first term in office, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was at the top of the pop charts and John Elway was a rookie quarterback for the Denver Broncos.
Now, 32 years later, Longwell is 76, living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and still waiting for the federal government to make a decision.
Longwell wants to explore for minerals on the 6,247 acres he acquired through a lease with the Bureau of Land Management so many years ago.
“We have a valid permit, and our client has the right to go and drill,” said Longwell’s attorney, William Perry Pendley, president and chief legal officer of Mountain States Legal Foundation.
What’s the hold up?
“There have been other litigations, there has been need for analysis … and that has taken time,” said Dave Cunningham, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service in Great Falls, Montana. “The chronology, I think, is very long.”
“They just want us to go away,” Pendley told Watchdog.org. “I just think the bureaucrats wanted to avoid making a decision. So they’ve just fooled around and fooled around and had meeting after meeting.”
Longwell and Pendley aren’t the only people frustrated by the drawn-out process.
“No combination of excuses could possibly justify such ineptitude or recalcitrance for such an epic period of time,” declared federal judge Richard J. Leon, who ordered the federal government to come up with a schedule, in 21 days, to reach a decision on the suspension status of the application.
The judge said Longwell’s case “by any measure” constitutes an “unreasonable delay.”
But there’s opposition to developing the site.
Longwell’s lease is in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, next to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwest Montana. The tribe’s leadership doesn’t want drilling on the site because, it says, the property encompasses sacred land called the Badger-Two Medicine, home to the tribe’s creation story.
“We want to protect that area because it’s important to us as a people,” Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray told Watchdog.org. “We adamantly oppose any development in that area, strongly oppose it.”
The tribe took the unusual step last month of breaking off all formal discussions with the federal government and Longwell’s Louisiana-based company, Solonex LLC, saying it saw no use in further negotiations.
“We are not going to speak to anything other than no development,” Murray said at the time.
The Blackfeet Nation has launched a media campaign to fight the proposed development, including erecting billboards, writing a letter to President Obama and taking to social media with the support of the rock band Pearl Jam.
Related: Obama flips on tribal sovereignty on oil and gas
Pendley says the tribe is using another delaying tactic and says there’s a long history of oil and gas development on its land.
According to the Blackfeet Department of Commerce website, the reservation has 11 oil and gas producers, with 39 gas wells in production.
Murray says those sites aren’t on land deemed sacred, such as the Badger-Two Medicine.
“The area is extremely important to us, dating back to the origins of the Blackfeet,” Murray said.
Pendley insists the legal fight is between Longwell and the U.S. government, not the Blackfeet tribe.
“It’s not their land,” Pendley told Watchdog.org, citing a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case in which tribes in California protested a Forest Service timber harvesting project, saying it was in an area considered sacred.
“Justice (Sandra Day) O’Connor said all of that doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, this is, after all, the (federal) government’s land,” Pendley said.
“It’s not his land, either,” Murray said. “We’re not talking about Sidney Longwell’s land. Those leases were illegally let.”
The tribe argues the leases should be rescinded for not following federal environmental impact statements, and the Blackfeet were not properly consulted.
According to court records, Longwell acquired the lease in 1982 through a lottery system administered under President Reagan. The rental fee on the lease, which has been in suspension, works out to about $1 an acre.
“The Reagan administration was in favor of development of energy on federal lands, and I guess subsequent administrations were less interested in that,” Pendley said.
The application to drill was OK’d twice but suspended after President Clinton took office. It was permanently suspended in 1998, where the application has remained.
The tribe says development on the Badger-Two Medicine would mar the area.
“We are not opposed to exploration, but the Badger-Two Medicine is a sacred area to us, and that’s off the table,” Tyson Running Wolf of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council told the Missoulian newspaper in April.
“In the early days (of Longwell’s lease), the tribe signed off on Forest Service studies that indicated there were no cultural resources affected by proposed activity, but that’s changed over time,” Pendley said.
Pendley says the drilling site would have a small footprint.
“We’re talking about one drilling pad,” Pendley said. “I don’t know the size of the pad, but it’s a relatively small area. I assume we’re going in with one rig.”
In the meantime, the 21-day clock is ticking.
“Right now we’re making sure that we do everything” that Judge Leon ordered, the Forest Service’s Cunningham said, “and build a schedule to comply with his ruling.”
Leon wants federal officials to rule on whether the suspension on Longwell’s lease will be lifted — in which case, exploration on the site will get the legal green light — or rejected.
“(The federal government) has no basis to say no,” Pendley said. “And we will be in court getting an order to allow us to drill. Failing that, the government is going to have to start writing a check. If the government wants to go so far as to simply say no, then we need to find out what’s the value of what we own and what they’re denying us the ability to use.”
The Blackfeet tribe won’t quit, either.
“If we get a bad decision in this whole process, there’s a court of law that we can bring to the forefront the whole idea that those leases were illegally let in the first place,” Murray said. “That hasn’t been contested yet.”
After more than three decades, is the Forest Service confident the impasse can finally be resolved?
“That’s kind of a judgment call, a speculative call,” Cunningham said. “Really, what we’re working on right now is just complying with the judge’s order in terms of providing the information he requested within the 21 days.”
And what about the 76-year-old Longwell?
Watchdog.org left a message at his home in Louisiana, but he did not return the call.
Pendley said his client is still determined to exercise the application to drill he obtained back in the early 1980s.
“He was a fairly young man and excited about winning the lease on property that all the studies show has great potential for natural gas.”