Judge: US agency lacks authority to set rules on fracking


CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A judge ruled Tuesday that federal regulators lack the authority to set rules for hydraulic fracturing, dealing another setback to the Obama administration’s efforts to tighten how fossil fuels are mined.

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl said the Bureau of Land Management can’t set the rules because Congress has not authorized it to do so. The judge, who was nominated by Obama in 2011, wrote that the court’s role is not to decide whether hydraulic fracturing is good or bad for the environment, but to interpret whether Congress has given the Department of Interior legal authority to regulate the practice.

“It has not,” wrote Skavdahl, who last year blocked implementation of rules drafted by the agency.

The states of Colorado, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming oppose the rules involving hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting substances including water, sand and chemicals underground to increase production from oil and gas wells.

The Bureau of Land Management and a coalition of environmental groups say the rules are necessary to protect the environment. The bureau’s rules would have required petroleum developers to disclose to regulators the ingredients in the chemical products they use to improve the results of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

Attempts to reach the Bureau of Land Management and Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael for comment about the ruling late Tuesday were unsuccessful.

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

“BLM did not have the authority to issue its rule in the first place,” Kirby said. “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.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming called the ruling a victory for states’ rights.

“This rule undermined the careful and efficient regulation of fracturing that states have put in place, like the rules written by Wyoming,” the Republican lawmaker said.

The states and other rule opponents, including groups representing the energy industry and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray, based in Utah, filed briefs with Skavdahl. Wyoming, Utah and Colorado worked together on the case, while North Dakota filed its own brief.

The Ute Tribe stated in its brief that it agrees with the states that the Bureau of Land Management lacks rulemaking authority. The tribe also said that the federal agency lacks authority to regulate fracking on land that the United States holds in trust for the Indian tribes and tribal members.

Tuesday’s ruling marked the latest setback for the Obama administration’s efforts on environmental issues. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s effort to slow climate change by reducing power-plant emissions by one-third by 2030. The court said legal challenges to the rules had to be resolved first.

About two dozen states, most of them GOP-led, and scores of utilities and coal mining companies have sued to stop the rules.

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