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Interior Department to withdraw Obama-era fracking rule, filings reveal

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, extracts oil and gas from the Monterey Shale formation near Buttonwillow, Calif., in March 2014. (David McNew/Getty Images)
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The Trump administration plans to withdraw and rewrite a 2015 rule aimed at limiting hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” on public lands, the Interior Department indicated in court filings Wednesday.

The move to rescind the 2015 regulation, which has been stayed in federal court, represents the latest effort by the new administration to ease restraints on oil and gas production in the United States. Interior’s Bureau of Land Management issued the rule in an effort to minimize the risk of water contamination through the practice, which involves injecting a mix of chemicals and water at high pressure into underground rock formations to force out oil and gas.

Under the proposal, companies that drill on federal and tribal 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 report which chemicals they were pumping into the ground.

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But last June, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl in Wyoming ruled that Interior had exceeded its congressional mandate in choosing to regulate the controversial drilling practice. While Obama administration officials appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, the appeals court asked BLM on March 9 if the agency’s position had changed now that Trump is in office.

On Wednesday, Justice Department lawyers representing Interior and BLM asked the court to “continue the oral argument and hold these appeals in abeyance pending a new rulemaking” on the issue. The attorneys noted that Interior officials were already reviewing the regulation to mesh with Trump’s agenda.

“As part of this process, the Department has begun reviewing the 2015 Final Rule (and all guidance issued pursuant thereto) for consistency with the policies and priorities of the new Administration,” the motion reads. “This initial review has revealed that the 2015 Final Rule does not reflect those policies and priorities.”

The department will “soon” be issuing a notice in the Federal Register to announce it will be rescinding the rule and writing a new one.

The Interior Department could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday night.

Industry officials welcomed the move, saying federal officials should have shown more deference to state regulators in the first place.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with the new administration to eliminate red tape and encourage investment in federal, American, oil and gas projects, said Erik Milito, the American Petroleum Institute’s upstream and industry operations group director. “Under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling on state and private lands have opened up a new era of energy security, job growth, and economic strength.”

But environmentalists said hydraulic fracturing poses serious risks to groundwater and has been linked to earthquakes, prompting the need for nationwide rules.

Michael Saul, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement that the decision “highlights Trump’s desire to leave our beautiful public lands utterly unprotected from oil industry exploitation.”

“Backing away from these modest rules is doubly dangerous given the administration’s reckless plans to ramp up fracking and drilling on public lands across America,” Saul said. “Federal rules are critical because state rules in places like Oklahoma have been appallingly slow to confront air pollution, man-made earthquakes and other serious harms caused by oil companies.”