Court Voids Obama Administration’s Federal Fracking Regulations

Published July 25, 2016

In a setback for the Obama administration’s effort to limit fracking on public lands, a federal judge struck down new regulations requiring companies to comply with federal safety standards in the construction of fracking wells and requirements to disclose the use of some chemicals in the fracking process.

Judge Scott Skavdahl, writing for the District Court of Wyoming, ruled in favor of the Ute Indian tribe and four oil-and-gas-producing states that challenged the regulations: Colorado, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Skavdahl determined that in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress expressly forbade the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating fracking, with only limited exceptions.

Skavdahl also said the rules weren’t necessary because fracking is already subject to other regulations under state and federal law. 

‘Contrary to the Law’

“Congress has not delegated to the Department of Interior the authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing,” Skavdahl wrote in his opinion. “The [Bureau of Land Management’s] efforts to do so through the Fracking Rule is in excess of its statutory authority and contrary to the law.

“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 for the citizens of the United States,” wrote Skavdahl.

The ruling by Skavdahl, a judge appointed by President Barack Obama, was welcomed by the oil-and-gas industry. “Today’s decision demonstrates that [the Bureau of Land Management’s] efforts are not needed and that states are, and for over 60 years have been, in the best position to regulate hydraulic fracturing,” a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America said to National Public Radio. 

Courts Uphold Congress’ Legislative Authority

John Eick, director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Energy, Environment, and Agriculture task force, says a number of courts have recently rejected the Obama administration’s attempts to extend its authority through regulation.

“The judicial branch of government continues to rebuke the Obama administration for its overly expansive interpretation of its [agencies’] statutory authority,” said Eick. “In recent months, we have seen one court after another stay significant environmental regulations and other rules, saying certain administrative acts are illegal or unconstitutional. What makes this example unique is that Judge Skavdahl is an Obama appointee.”

Dan Simmons, vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, applauds Skavdahl for standing up to the Obama administration.

“It’s sad that it takes a court to remind the Obama administration it cannot do anything it wants,” said Simmons. “Only the legislature is empowered by the Constitution to write law. Thank goodness Judge Skavdahl stood up for that simple principle underlying the rule of law.” 

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.