Judge rules that states, not US, have authority to govern fracking

A Wyoming district judge has ruled that the court's responsibility is not to determine if fracking is good or bad for the environment but to determine whether the Department of the Interior can legally regulate the practice. 

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
A worker at a hydraulic fracturing and extraction site in western Colorado in 2013. This week a US District judge in Wyoming ruled that the Department of the Interior does not have the authority to regulate fracking in the state.

A US District judge in Cheyenne, Wyo., ruled Tuesday in favor of state sovereignty when it comes to the regulation of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The decision centered on whether the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BML) has the authority to regulate the oil and gas extraction procedure in the state. The ruling marks another strike against President Obama's hopes of controlling fossil fuel mining on a federal level.

US District Judge Scott Skavdahl, who was appointed by Mr. Obama in 2011, said that it was not his court's role to determine whether fracking is a danger to the environment, but rather to determine if Congress had granted the Department of the Interior the authority to regulate it, the Associated Press reports.

In his ruling, he found that Congress has not given that power to the federal agency and that any regulations need to be made by the states themselves.

US Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R) of Wyoming told the AP that the ruling was a victory for states' rights, saying that her state and others already have "careful and efficient regulation of fracturing."

Colorado, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming all oppose the BML's rules. Each of the states, as well as the Utah-based Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray and energy industry groups, filed briefs with Judge Skavdahl arguing for their rights.

The rules proposed by the BML would have required developers to report the ingredients of the chemicals that they used in hydraulic fracturing. These chemicals are used to increase a well's production of oil and gas and can be shot into the ground along with water and sand during the hydraulic fracturing process.

Neal Kirby, a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said Tuesday he is pleased with Skavdahl's decision, the AP reports.

"BLM did not have the authority to issue its rule in the first place," Kirby told the AP. "Today's decision demonstrates BLM's efforts are not needed and that states are – and have for over 60 years been – in the best position to safely regulate hydraulic fracturing."

Fracking is used at 90 percent of new land-based wells, according to reports last year. And while the Obama administration issued regulations on the practice in 2015, the question of whether the state or federal government would be monitoring and regulating the practice's effect on the environment has a remained topic of contention.

In a decision that seems out of sync with the one that was made in Cheyenne this week, a US District Court in Los Angeles ruled earlier this year that the federal government must stop granting approval for offshore oil fracking in California's Santa Barbara Channel. The ruling ordered that the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement must analyze the environmental impact of fracking before issuing any more licenses, reported Story Hinkley for The Christian Science Monitor.

"Federal law clearly requires our government to analyze these threats. They can't just shrug off that obligation," Kristen Monsell, an attorney at the Center of Biological Diversity who worked on the lawsuit, told the Monitor in February.

And as courts decide where the regulatory power should lie, the environmental hazards of fracking continue to be debated. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report last year that supported the positions of both environmental groups and the energy industry.

The report, which focused on land-based fracking like the type being used in Wyoming, said that it did not find "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources," reported the Monitor's Sarah Caspari. However, the same report noted instances where water was affected and noted ways that fracking could contaminate water supplies.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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