Valerie Richardson | The Washington Times | 22 June 2016
DENVER — Even before a federal court ruling threw out the Obama administration’s hydraulic fracturing rule this week, foes of fracking were struggling to dig their way out of a hole after a string of policy and regulatory reversals.
Other environmental crusades targeting the oil and gas industry show signs of progress, but “fractivists” have absorbed a series of political and legal defeats that call into question whether the tactic once viewed as a surefire gusher will ever amount to more than fool’s gold.
The latest setback was delivered by U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl of the District of Wyoming, who ruled late Tuesday that the Interior Department exceeded its authority with its 2015 rule governing hydraulic fracturing, a widely used extraction technique used to separate oil and natural gas from rock. States have been the primary regulators.
The process has revolutionized world energy production patterns but has faced determined resistance from environmental groups arguing that fracking is either unproven or unsafe.
“Congress’ inability or unwillingness to pass a law desired by the executive branch does not default authority to the executive branch to act independently, regardless of whether hydraulic fracturing is good or bad for the environment or the citizens of the United States,” Judge Skavdahl wrote in his 27-page opinion.
The judge, appointed to the bench by President Obama in 2011, had placed a hold on the regulations pending the outcome of the lawsuit brought by industry groups and four Western states: Colorado, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
“For the past year, we’ve successfully made the case that these rules unlawfully interfere with Colorado’s sovereign right to responsibly and safely regulate the oil and gas industry,” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman said Wednesday. “This case is another unfortunate example of federal bureaucrats overstepping their authority.”
The White House characterized the fracking ruling as a temporary and isolated setback and noted that the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is also reviewing the case.
“We obviously believe that we’ve got a strong argument to make about the important role the federal government can play in ensuring that hydraulic fracturing that’s done on public lands doesn’t threaten the drinking water of people who live in the area,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “It’s a pretty simple proposition.”
The decision sideswiped a movement still reeling from another stinging court defeat. Six weeks earlier, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down fracking bans passed by two localities — Fort Collins and Longmont — ruling that state law regulating the industry trumps city and county ordinances.
Not even the Environmental Protection Agency has proved to be a reliable ally. In a long-awaited assessment on fracking and water quality released June 4, the EPA concluded that U.S. fracking activities are “carried out in a way that have not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”
Food & Water Watch, a leading anti-fracking group, accused the EPA of “injecting politics” into the study by doing the bidding of the fossil fuel industry.
“The fracking industry and big banks have huge stakes in promoting fracking, and we believe their influence explains why EPA chose to run with the controversial and unsupported headline,” Food & Water Watch senior researcher Hugh MacMillan said in a June 14 statement. “Now, the EPA has some explaining to do.”
Kathleen Sgamma, Western Energy Alliance vice president for government and public affairs, said the anti-fracking movement’s problem isn’t a lack of friends in the Obama administration but rather overreach.
“By attempting to stop or make fracking more difficult, either through redundant regulation or ballot initiatives, anti-fossil-fuel forces ran into reality. States are safely regulating fracking and protecting the environment, and citizens increasingly understand that balance,” said Ms. Sgamma. “Environmentalists thought their typical scare tactics could work and the public would buy it, but this year has shown that calmer heads are prevailing.”