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California sues Trump administration over repeal of fracking rule

Pump jacks are seen at dawn in an oil field over the Monterey Shale formation in California in 2014. (David McNew/Getty Images)

California did it again.

On Wednesday, the largest state in the country filed another lawsuit against the Trump administration, this one concerning the repeal of a rule regulating hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on publicly owned lands under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“The risks of fracking to our health and our environment are real,” Xavier Becerra said at a news conference Wednesday, on the first anniversary of his becoming California’s attorney general. Separately, a coalition of environmental and tribal groups sued to block the rollback of the fracking rule as well.

“President Trump and Interior Secretary Zinke didn’t let the law or facts get in their way in their zeal to repeal,” Becerra added.

The repeal of the 2015 rule, which was issued by the Bureau of Land Management under President Barack Obama, was a long time coming. After first indicating in a March 2017 court filing that it planned to repeal the rule, the Trump administration finalized the rollback Dec. 29.

Under the Obama-era rule, companies that drill on public or Native American lands were subject to stricter standards for oil and gas wells, and for ponds and tanks where toxic waste water that resulted from the fracking process is stored. With the rule, the Obama administration also sought to compel oil and gas firms to report what chemicals they use when they fracked — data environmental groups frequently try to pry from drillers, with little success.

Over the course of 2017,  California has challenged the Trump administration in court at nearly every turn, suing federal agencies over immigration enforcement, the military transgender ban, student loan protections and fuel-efficiency standards. In total, Becerra has sued the Trump administration 26 times, fracking suit included.

Much of California’s success in court has come in the environmental arena, according to data provided by his office. Of the 10 legal victories Becerra has secured to date, six of them concern environmental issues, including the rollback of rules meant to curb methane leaks from oil and gas wells and to make cars burn fuel more efficiently.

“He hasn’t lost one case yet,” Becerra spokeswoman Sarah Lovenheim wrote by email.

But the fracking rule affected California and other Western states in particular. The Bureau of Land Management oversees 600 oil- and gas-producing leases on federal or tribal lands in California, covering more than 200,000 acres.

In the suit, California argues that BLM lacks legal justification for repealing the rule. In 2015, the bureau said it needed to issue the rule to fulfill its mandate to protect Native American tribes. In repealing the regulation two years later, BLM did not explain how it would fulfill that responsibility without the rule, Becerra’s office argued.

The state also is arguing that the Trump administration violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the nation’s bedrock environmental statute, by failing to consider the environmental impacts of fracking, whether it causes groundwater contamination or earthquakes. Represented by Earthjustice, the environmentalists claim Interior broke several laws, including NEPA, with the repeal.

“This is another case of the Trump administration putting our public lands and water at risk to pad the bottom line of the oil and gas industry,” Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman said in a statement. “The agency has abdicated its responsibility under federal law to manage these lands.”