Bowing to local Native American concerns, Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp. halted its environmental assessment of possible oil/gas drilling in the Red Blanket Butte area northwest of Browning, MT, in the face of possibly disturbing cultural resources associated with the Blackfeet Tribe.

As part of the exploration preparation process, Anschutz said it has notified regulatory agencies overseeing the assessment work of potential impact. The impacts were spotted as potentially arising in response to plans to drill the Red Blanket 1-13 well, Anschutz said earlier in March. The energy exploration and development company holds oil and natural gas leases across a wide swatch of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation's western edge.

The proposed drill site turned out to be close to a ridge considered to have sacred value to the Native Americans. The butte is about six miles from the eastern edge of Glacier National Park, and has served as a spiritual reservoir and burial ground for Blackfeet members.

"We work closely with regulators, the tribe and the community to address these issues when they arise," said Anschutz Senior Vice President Margo Timbel. In this case, Timbel said that the environmental review process "worked as it was intended" to do, identifying "a critical issue to be addressed by the agencies and Anschutz."

Other options are now being investigated by the company, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Blackfeet agency. The area on which Anschutz has suspended activity is about 640 acres, but the entire federal exploratory lease area encompasses roughly 50,000 acres. "We continue working on other project sites in the area," said an Anschutz spokesperson Monday, adding that the company "does not wish to comment on additional activities in Montana at this time."

Under a 2006 resolution by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, Anschutz and others were allowed to drill exploratory wells on a 400,000-acre tract of reservation land abutting Glacier Park on the east.

Two years ago five producers agreed to relinquish close to 30,000 acres of natural gas and oil leases in Montana's Rocky Mountain Front adjacent to Glacier (see Daily GPI, Jan. 19, 2010). Occidental Petroleum Corp., Williams, Rosewood Resources, XTO Energy Inc. and BP plc voluntarily relinquished leases on 28,730 acres.

At the time, the companies were responding to concerns that parts of the land were considered sacred to the Blackfeet Tribe because it is the site of the tribe's creation story.

Today both an environmental science student at a local junior college and the head of the University of Montana's Native American Studies program, have sounded alarms in the local news media. Among other issues, they noted that hydraulic fracturing is now a contentious issue for the Blackfeet, who like other tribes are trying to determine the right balance among cultural preservation, environmental protection and economic development needs.

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