By Darryl L. Flowers
According to the November 5 letter from Forest Supervisor William Avey, the purpose of the new consulting party meeting is to “update you on the status of the Section 106 process” under the National Historic Preservation Act. According to the letter, the meeting concerns an expanded Traditional Cultural District (TCD) that now encompasses the entire lease. At the meeting, according to the Avey letter, participants will discuss the potential effects on the TCD and “seek possible mitigation measures, if necessary.”
Earlier this year, Solonex, LLC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, in an effort to end the delays imposed on an exploratory well on the lease. Sidney Longwell, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, acquired the lease in 1982. In 1983, Longwell entered into an agreement with American Petrofina to explore for oil and gas on the lease. In 1985, the Bureau of Land Management approved Fina’s Application for Permit to Drill.
Fina was stymied in efforts to move forward with the first well until the Spring of 2001, when the firm assigned the APD back to Longwell and left the project. Since that time some in the media, several environmental groups along with some some Blackfeet Tribal members have aligned to challenge oil and gas exploration in the area.
Very little has been reported about the history of the area where the lease is located. Contrary to what is often portrayed in the media, the Solonex lease, as well as several others that are also in suspension, is not on Tribal reservation land, but on an area known as the “Ceded Strip.” The name arises out of the treaty of 1895, when the Blackfeet sold, or ceded, the land to the U.S. Government. At the time of the sale, there was no oil exploration in the region – that would not begin until the early 1900s. However, the land was known for its gold, silver and copper deposits. An examination of the minutes from the treaty negotiations between the Blackfeet and the government reveal the tribe was acutely aware of the minerals, even taking the government agents into the mountains to show them some of the gold deposits.
According to the minutes, the government had every intent of allowing private development of the minerals on the strip. The government agents told the Blackfeet that the land would be opened up to mining interests in hopes that the proceeds of the land sales would reimburse the taxpayers for the land purchase.
During the talks, according to the minutes that are part of the official record (Senate Document No. 118, February 12, 1896), the issue of cultural, or religious, practices on the land were never raised. In a meeting between the government and tribal members on September 21, 1895, Three Suns said, “At the last treaty the Government bought a large tract of land, and it has now sent you to buy more land. I wish not only to be benefited, but to have my children pleased by reason of the treaty that we are about to make. We will approach each other with caution. We are to sell some land that is of little use to us, and we want the price to be satisfactory to all-the full bloods and the mixed bloods. It is not for myself that I speak, but for the rising generation. If you wish to give a good price, we will be pleased. The responsibility rests on us, not on the rising generation.”
The treaty reserved for the Blackfeet the right to hunt, fish and gather wood for fuel and construction on the land only as long as the government owned the strip. Hoke Smith, Secretary of the Interior at the time wrote, “… care should be taken to make such provision for their [the Ceded Strip lands] as will surely reimburse the government for the whole of these transactions.”
In February, 2004, the Forest Service acknowledged the status of tribal rights on the ceded strip in a “Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) on NorthWestern Energy’s Lewis and Clark Loop Natural Gas Pipeline Project. The Lewis and Clark Loop was a secondary gas pipeline that parallels, for approximately 10 miles, the original line installed in 1976 that supplies natural gas to Flathead County.
In chapter 1 of the report, section 1.4.2, “Social Issues,” the USFS report states, “The proposed project would be undertaken with the lands ceded by the Blackfeet Tribe to the United States. An 1895 agreement between the Blackfeet Tribe and the United States ceded lands along the western side of the then Blackfeet Reservation. Under that Agreement, the Blackfeet Tribe reserved rights on these lands to (United States of America, 1895):
cut and remove therefrom wood and timber for agency and school purposes, and for their personal uses for houses, fences and all other domestic purposes (…) hunt upon said lands and to fish in the streams thereof so long as the same shall remain public lands of the United Stated under and in accordance with the provisions of the game and fish laws of the State of Montana.”
Despite attempts over the years by many in the media to paint the lease area as “wilderness,” the drill site is in fact within a short distance from the aforementioned natural gas pipelines, several electrical transmission lines, buried telecommunications lines, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe track that carries an average of 28 trains per day, a major highway, private homes, a resort and an array of radio and microwave transmission towers.
At a Highway 2 pullout, standing near a passing freight train and over a buried phone line, one can look across the ridge where the proposed drill-site is located and see… not “wilderness,” but Mount Baldy, a peak crammed with communications antennas. In the 1960’s, two exploratory oil wells were drilled near Mount Baldy. Phillips Petroleum started with the Kiyo 1. After a prolonged fight to maintain drilling mud circulation on the well, the company gave up and skidded the rig to a new location and successfully drilled the Kiyo 1A. Reports indicate that the first attempt had encountered an underground cavern at 3,500 feet.
Referring again to the Forest Service FONSI document, the 2004 paper described the area’s Planned Land Use along Highway 2: “… The LCNF Plan Final Environmental Impact Statement identifies several transportation and utility corridors on the Forest. The Bonneville Power Administration and the FS joint Pacific Northwest Long-Range East-West Corridor Study identified the U. S. Highway 2 corridor as one potential corridor (R2N) crossing the Forest. Further, the LCNF has identified the existing pipeline area as a designated utility corridor.”
In fact, the Solonex lease appears to run under the power and telecommunications lines, Highway 2, the NorthWestern Energy pipelines and the BNSF tracks.
On February 18, 1981, just prior to Mr. Longwell’s acquiring the lease, the Forest Service completed an Environmental Assessment for Nonwilderness Oil and Gas Leasing in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. According to the report, the “Northern Disturbed Belt, a portion of the Western Overthrust Belt, has a very high potential for discovery of oil and gas.” The report, according to a summary obtained by the Sun Times, “analyzed the effect of oil and gas activities on other resources and concluded that oil and gas leases could be issued and operations could be undertaken in the Forest.” Disturbed Belt and Overthrust Belt refer to the geology of the fractured and faulted structures that occur along the Rockies. These “belts” along the Rocky Mountain Front from Alaska to South America, are known for their hydrocarbon potential.
The area of the lease is, geologically speaking, on trend with the oil and gas fields of Waterton and Pincher Creek in Southern Alberta. In fact, Waterton National Park, part of the “Crown of the Continent,” is a prolific gas field. Nearby Pincher Creek is also known for its gas production.
Waterton National Park is also the site of an interesting monument… a tribute to Alberta’s first oil well, drilled in 1902. It was the early attempts to produce oil in Alberta that triggered the search for oil south of the border, in Montana. That search began in Flathead County, near Kinta Lake, now part of Glacier National Park.
A letter dated November 22, 1993 from Geologic Survey of Canada to the Great Falls office of the Bureau of Land Management spells out the potential of the Overthrust/Disturbed Belt in Montana, “The remaining 314,850 X 106 m3 (cubic meters) of raw gas in place (or about 11.1 trillion cubic feet)… is inferred to be in the United States of America.”
The letter continues, “The largest expected pool to be discovered in this play would be expected to be larger than Waterton Sheet #3… or greater than 1.7 trillion cubic feet. It is our opinion that this constitutes a significant potential resource and a significant potential source of revenue to the land-owner, largely the government of the United States…”
More recently, in the June 2011 issue of “Explorer,” a publication of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, an article by David Brown detailed the excitement expressed by the late Petroleum Geologist Doug Strickland not long before he passed away, “In an interview just two weeks before his death, Strickland talked about his recent work in Northwest Montana.
His company, Red Rock Resources LLC of Oklahoma City, holds lease acreage in the emerging Alberta Basin Bakken Shale play east of Glacier National Park.
Strickland grew excited about the possibility of a major gas field lurking to the west of the new Bakken play.
“I’ve been working in this part of Montana for 25 years. One of the largest prospects I believe I’ve ever mapped is in the Eastern portion of the Blackfeet Reservation, ” he said.
He described a trend that started in Canada and extended south into the Glacier mountain front.
“Across the border, there are three major fields within six miles of the United States, ” he said. “There’s a swath in there that looks very prospective. ”
A few miles away from the Solonex drill site, on the reservation, Rainbow Resources drilled the Two Medicine 1-19 well in 1979. According to the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation Reservoir Survey Report and Gas Oil Ratio on file, the well produced 18,982,000 cubic feet of gas over a four day test. In addition to the gas, the well produced over 443 barrels of condensate. Even more impressive is the small amount of water produced from the well, only 74.64 barrels over the four day evaluation. The 1-19 well produced from the Mission Canyon Formation, part of the Madison Group. According to the well logs, oil and gas shows were encountered at several depths.
The Two Medicine 1-19 was one of several wells drilled in the area of the Morning Gun #1, which tested at over six million cubic feet per day of gas. The Morning Gun also produced condensate and very little water.
Chatter in the industry trade journals at the time of the Morning Gun (mid 1950s) speculated that the wells were being drilled too shallow, compared to the wells that were being drilled at the same time across the border in Pincher Creek, Alberta. While wells in Glacier County were quite capable to producing 12,000,000 cubic feet of gas per day, one well at Pincher Creek recorded an “Initial Production” of 168,000,000 cubic feet of gas per day. The pressure at the well was so great that, when the valves were opened, the bends in the steel piping were straightened, according to reports in the Montana Oil Journal.