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Federal judge says Obama administration lacks authority to halt fracking on public lands

Workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation outside Rifle, in western Colorado. (Brennan Linsley/AP)

A federal judge late Tuesday dealt a blow to the Obama administration’s key effort to limit hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” on public lands, saying that regulators lack authority to set new restrictions on the practice. The ruling, issued in Wyoming by U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl, marked the latest legal setback to the administration’s efforts to tighten regulations around the mining of fossil fuels.

The decision prevents the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management from moving forward with a 2015 rule that was intended to impose tougher restrictions on oil and gas fracking operations on public lands, as part of an effort to minimize the risk of water contamination from the controversial practice. Under the proposal, companies that drill on public lands would be subject to stricter design standards for wells and for holding tanks and ponds where liquid wastes are stored. They also would be forced to disclose the chemicals that they pump into the ground.

But Skavdahl’s ruling Tuesday, which almost certainly will face an appeal, found that federal regulators could not enforce the new rules because Congress had not authorized the regulators to put them in place.

“The issue before this Court is not whether hydraulic fracturing is good or bad for the environment or the citizens of the United States,” he wrote. Rather, he said, the central legal question is “whether Congress has delegated to the Department of Interior legal authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing. It has not.”

In a statement Wednesday, an Interior spokesman said it is “unfortunate that implementation of the rule continues to be delayed because it prevents regulators from using 21st-century standards to ensure that oil and gas operations are conducted safely and responsibly on public and tribal lands.”

Obama administration tightens federal rules on oil and gas fracking

Fracking involves injecting liquids into underground rock formations at high pressure to extract oil and gas that would be all but inaccessible using conventional methods. In the decade since the technology became widely available, the practice has revolutionized the country’s natural-gas industry and helped make the United States a global leader in the production of natural gas. But it also has raised fears about groundwater pollution and even a heightened risk of earthquakes.

Even though they apply only to oil and gas drilling on federal lands, the proposed new regulations have drawn sharp opposition from industry groups that worry the new requirements will drive up production costs everywhere.

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Tuesday’s decision drew decidedly different reactions from environmental groups and others that support new regulations, and from industry groups that have argued it should be left to individual states to regulate the practice.

“The Bureau of Land Management clearly has the authority not only to set this weak rule on fracking but to take the much stronger actions needed to truly protect our public lands,” wrote the Center for Biological Diversity, a national conservation organization. “The best way to safeguard America from fracking pollution is to ban this toxic technique and leave dirty fossil fuels in the ground.”

Meanwhile, groups such as the Independent Petroleum Association of America were quick to praise the ruling.

“The federal government’s attempt to regulate hydraulic fracturing is unnecessary, duplicative, and would further drive independent producers from federal lands,” the group wrote in a statement. “Independent producers are good stewards of our lands. We recognize that every energy-producing area has different needs and requirements, which is why the states are far more effective at properly regulating hydraulic fracturing than the federal government.”

This week’s ruling was not the only legal roadblock the Obama administration has faced in carrying out its environmental goals. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court stayed the “Clean Power Plan,” the White House’s key effort to slow climate change in coming years by reducing carbon emissions, after more than two dozen states, along with utilities and coal companies, accused the Environmental Protection Agency of overstepping its authority. Hundreds of lawmakers, environmental groups and companies such as Apple and Google have backed the plan.

Arguments in that case are scheduled later this year in a D.C. federal court.

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Obama to toughen rules forcing states to cut pollution from coal-burning power plants. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)