New Federal Fracking Rules Delayed by U.S. Judge in Wyoming

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Peter Michael
Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael. Photographer: Ben Neary/AP Photo

New U.S. fracking safety rules set to take effect Wednesday were put on hold by a Wyoming federal judge who said he needed more evidence to decide whether to block them as requested by drillers and four western states.

Before a courtroom audience in Casper that included the state attorneys general of Wyoming and North Dakota, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl said he couldn’t grant or reject a bid for a longer-lasting order because he needed more information about the federal government’s process for making such rules.

“I am not going to write anybody a blank check,” Skavdahl, a 2011 appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama, said Tuesday after listening to almost eight hours of argument and testimony. His decision means the rules can’t take effect for at least a month.

The states opposing the rules, which also include Colorado and Utah, accuse the U.S. of trampling their sovereignty by duplicating regulations already in place and imposing permitting delays that could cost them revenue. The Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Western Energy Alliance complained that the new federal requirements to disclose the chemicals they use would put their trade secrets at risk.

The new rules would affect 700 million acres of public land overseen by the federal government. Much of that land sits atop oil-rich shale formations in the West, where fracking has catapulted the U.S. to world leadership in oil production. The process has also raised concerns about air and ground-water pollution and earthquakes.

Step Aside

Federal lawyers told Skavdahl the new rules were needed to update those already in place. The U.S. was willing to step aside where equal or more-effective state measures were in force, they said.

The judge emphasized his decision shouldn’t be mistaken for a decision on the relief sought by the states and industry. He said he saw a credible threat the states might be irreparably harmed if the rules take effect, an indication he might accept a key portion of their argument. He also said more than 99 percent of existing wells were already subject to state regulation.

Government lawyers at the hearing declined to comment on the delay. Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, also declined to comment on it.

Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael said he was heartened by the judge’s decision. His North Dakota counterpart, Wayne Stenehjem, called the decision “a very fair status quo” and declined to predict how Skavdahl might ultimately rule.

“I don’t know how much clearer he could have been,” Kathleen Sgamma, a Western Energy Alliance vice president, said of the judge after the hearing.

The case is State of Wyoming v. U.S. Department of the Interior, 15-cv-00043, U.S. District Court, District of Wyoming (Casper).

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