The Department of the Interior will cancel oil and natural gas leases on land supposedly sacred to the Blackfeet tribe.
The tribe says that the land is a critical part of its creation story — one that’s supported by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. But is the land actually sacred?
“The tribe sold that land to the U.S. government back in the 1800s, hard to believe its that sacred to them,” William Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“When these leases were issued back in the 1980s, these tribes supported energy development and wanted to work with the oil and gas. They support drilling, they just want it on the reservation,” said Pendle, who represents the energy company Solenex that had its oil and gas leases canceled.
Solenex’s lease was cancelled in March after a nearly year-long district court battle, even though the company’s application to drill was approved on four separate occasions by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
“The area is part of a national forest and it was issued to us in 1982,” Pendley said. “We were given permission to drill on our lease. Sometime in the least 10 years, the tribe decided it would prefer to drill on their reservation.”
The Obama administration says the land has immense cultural value to the Blackfeet tribe, and now argues it only sold the land to energy companies because it “failed to fully consider the effects of oil and gas development on cultural resources.”
“The land belongs to the United States government, not the tribe,” Pendley continued. “The Supreme Court decided back in 1988 that just because some Americans think land is sacred, doesn’t mean it can’t be drilled.”
The Department of the Interior settled its legal dispute with Devon Energy, which owned 15 of the 17 disputed leases, for only $206,058. The exploration leases are in a national forest in northwest Montana, and cover 130,000 acres surrounded by Glacier National Park, but were sold to energy companies in the 1980s.
“The area is part of a national forest and it was issued to us in 1982,” Pendley continued. “We were given permission to drill on our lease. Sometime in the least 10 years, the tribe decided it would prefer to drill on their reservation.”
When asked if he expects the federal governments’ position to shift once President-elect Donald Trump takes office, Pendley replied “we’ve been involved in litigation about this since 1977. There was no change in the litigation posture of the federal government when George Bush took over.”
Indian reservation lands have the potential to produce a vast array of wealth that could enrich tribes by $75 billion annually, according to a study by the free-market Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). Due to federal agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and BLM, roughly 86 percent of Indian lands with energy or mineral potential remain undeveloped. The bureaucracy costs the average Native American reservation resident $12,145 in lost revenue annually, according to an academic economic analysis published in January.
Over 20 percent of American Indian households on reservations made less than $5,000 annually in 2013, compared to six percent of the general U.S. population.
The Crow tribe has an unemployment rate of over 30 percent and a poverty rate above 40 percent. Roughly 20 percent of the region’s economic output and eight percent of the worker pay in the region comes from a single coal mine, according to a study published by Harvard University. The Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota has the lowest per capita income of any group in America, averaging a mere $4,043 annually.
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