No fracking way: Judge blocks Obama admin’s new energy regulations

© Jim Urquhart
Government efforts to regulate the process of hydraulic fracturing suffered another blow on Wednesday, when a federal district court judge blocked the Obama administration’s tougher fracking restrictions.

The preliminary injunction was issued by Judge Scott Skavdahl of the US District Court of Wyoming, who ruled that the department responsible for the new fracking regulations, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), does not actually have the authority to implement them.

“Congress has not authorized or delegated to the BLM authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing and, under our constitutional structure, it is only through congressional action that the BLM can acquire this authority,” the judge wrote in a 54-page decision.

The BLM rules were intended to govern fracking operations on federal land in order to ensure that the oil and gas exploration process does not contaminate water sources. They also required energy companies to inform the public about what kind of chemicals they used during their fracking operations.

According to Skavdahl, the BLM had not been previously involved in regulating the fracking industry and expressed doubt over the agency’s claim that it could do so, particularly since Congress had previously revoked the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory abilities. He said that as a result, “it is hard to analytically conclude that … Congress intended to vest it in the BLM.”

Additionally, the judge said it was likely that opponents of the regulations would succeed in court, fulfilling another reason for the granting of an injunction.

The judge’s ruling will be observed by the BLM while the case plays out in court, the Interior Department, which has jurisdiction over the BLM, told the Hill newspaper.

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“While the matter is being resolved, the BLM will follow the Court's order and will continue to process applications for permit to drill and inspect well sites under its pre-existing regulations,” the agency said in a statement.

The injunction comes as a blow not just to the Obama administration, but also to environmentalists who have launched aggressive campaigns against fracking. The process involves shooting highly pressurized water, sand and chemicals into layers of rock in order to free up oil and gas that is trapped inside. It’s unclear exactly what chemicals are used in the process, but the toxic wastewater is then disposed in deep underground wells.

So far, studies have linked fracking operations to drought conditions, water contamination and earthquakes. In Oklahoma, where earthquakes were once rare, the state now sees hundreds of tremors a year.

However, the energy industry and many conservatives have denied the claims. The proposed BLM rules were contested by Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota and Utah, as well as the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and the Western Energy Alliance. Skavdahl’s ruling was welcomed by opponents.

“The United States has experienced a regulatory onslaught from an administration that acts as if it is not bound by the limits of the law,” said Kathleen Sgamma, the vice president of government and public affairs at Western Energy Alliance, to the Hill. “The regulatory overreach has cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and prevented considerable economic growth.”